Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Friedl’s Online Game Interactivity Theory

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

By Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)

Author: Markus Friedl
Full Title: Online Game Interactivity Theory
Publisher: Charles River Media
List price: 49,95 USD (hardcover)
Pages: 432

Should academics review books on design, books that are intended as somewhat practical guidelines for actual concrete work? Of course they should, as long as both reviewer and those who read the review are aware that the book is scrutinized outside its natural habitat. Thus, the criteria applied may, in a sense, be unfair and not reveal whether the book has merit in an actual design process.

Having said this I’m sure the reader will have surmised that Markus Friedl’s ‘Online Game Interactivity Theory’ has caused me some trouble. Saving that for later, let’s look at the facts.

Game designer and MA in Communications and Media Design & Techniques, Markus Friedl has set out to write a book that will “guide you through the process of creating multiplayer online games”, claiming that the book “presents ideas of successful and unsuccessful online game design and what criteria you can use to differentiate a strong design from a weak one.”

The title of the book hints at the author’s ambition to institute the concept of interactivity as the prism through which we should understand online game design. Thus, we are faced with an author who is not satisfied with lining up best practices and sage bulleted advice but one who wants to present more basic (and theoretical) models for understanding the games in question. Does he succeed? That too, we’ll save for later.

The book (which is part of Charles River Media’s quickly growing series on ‘Advances in Computer Graphics and Game Development) is divided into four parts, as follows.

• Forethought and planning deals with historical issues and touches upon theoretical discussions on why people play. It also presents a model for understanding interactivity in MMOGs
• Implementation applies the concepts introduced to various aspects of MMOGs such as community design and the design of game characters.
• Additional Tools and Techniques discusses various ways of going about the design process in terms of prototyping, playtesting and the use of middleware. And finally…
• Interviews and Opinions is a (pseudo) discussion between knowledgeable game designers (Warren Spector, Richard Bartle, Chris Crawford, Ernest Adams and others) addressing various topics covered by the book.

Through these four parts we are given a discussion on major design issues pertaining to MMOGs, guided by the idea that a series of radically different challenges arise with the move from single-player fun to the potentially chaotic social worlds of (especially) persistent online game worlds.

A commendable thing about the book is the author’s attitude that some basic thinking and modelling is required to really advance the study and design of these games. Thus, the book starts (Academia style) with a history of multiplayer online games and the justification “as in any art and science, a clear understanding of what and who defined and shaped past technology can have meaningful implications on your future creations. Such a discussion provides insights on methods and techniques that proved to work or fail and can offer you a significantly fresh or changed perspective about the nature of the media you are designing.” Amen to that. However, the nine pages (out of the book’s 400) devoted to this endeavour illustrate a critical problem with the book. It lands somewhere between the thorough and the superficial. This is the level where points are hinted at but not well-argued, where statements are rarely exemplified and where points are never documented with references or complemented by tips on where to read more. It is a strange level. What, for instance, to make of statements such as these:
“One of your primary goals in designing computer games is (or should be) to provide and keep the highest possible suspension of disbelief…”, “Player-to-player interaction defines the very nature of multiplayer online games!”, “Virtual communities are affected and shaped by unique, special phenomena that do not exist in real-world communities in any comparable or similar form.”. Obviously, such points can be argued but when they’re not, they are bound to leave the reader puzzled. However, the number of exclamation marks may be used as a guideline as they seem to correspond negatively to the level of importance (in some paragraphs this number reaches dizzying heights and really should have been eliminated by a kind editor). At other times analogies are vague or at least imprecise (e.g. “As a social entity [a game community] follows Darwin’s theorem and continuously changes and evolves in order to guarantee longest possible subsistence.”) .

To the academic reader, at least, the complete lack of references or attribution of points and ideas to their originators makes for a rather challenging read. A number of non-sequiturs along the lines of “we now realize” and “what is now clear to us” may disturb any careful reader of the book.

These things aside, what makes the book hard to understand is still mainly the odd middle position between theory and facts. Although some examples are used, they are quite few and much too far between making the author’s statements terribly hard to judge and often to understand on anything but a vague abstracts level (a case in point is the continuous talk of interactivity which is probably the epitomical vague concept).

And this is a shame. It’s a shame because the author has put a great deal of thought – and put a large amount of work – into the subject. It’s also a shame because the author does display a deep understanding of many important aspects pertaining to MMOG design and tackles the subject with the sincere belief (true in my opinion) that collaboration or at least sharing of knowledge between game design, sociology, communication theory, anthropology and other fields is essential for the development of insight in this area.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the book certainly has strong points. The part on prototyping and testing seems rather solid and useful and the discussion on conflict and cooperation is thorough if somewhat unstructured. Interestingly, Friedl suggests how the game theoretical Prisoner’s Dilemma may serve as interesting inspiration for the creation of non-violent conflict in MMOGs. Such original ideas might well have been given more prominent positions in the book.

In summary, ‘Online Game Interactivity Theory’ has good sections but will hardly serve its purpose as a coherent discussion of MMOGs in competition with other books on that same subject that seem to be published in abundance at present.

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