Nic Ducheneaut has been researching (and playing!) World of Warcraft for several years and he shared some of his findings in his talk, For Fun and For Profit: Soing Social Science Research in Online Games at UC Santa Cruz this morning. He focused particularly on new design opportunities that his research data suggest. The entire talk will be posted soon but I wanted to call out some highlights that were especially interesting from the perspective of the work we do at the Center. First, the access to the amount of data he and his team have been able to collect is staggering and makes me excited to think about what else we could learn! They were able to gather 3 tiers of data: first, in-game robots were deployed to observe and take a census of the population along 7 variables; they were able to collect data for 300,000 characters this way. Next they pulled data from the WoW Armory, which collects on 3500 variables. This provided daily snapshots of character activities and states. Finally they surveyed 500 players from the US, 500 players from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and are in the process of surveying players from mainland China and Europe. With these surveys they were able to collect detailed demographic and personality information.
Nic illuminated three key areas where research findings lead to some interesting design questions: sociability, collaboration, and personality. In the area of sociability Nic looked at how the game supports both solo and group play, offering a sort of "two in one" game experience. The data shows that players for the most part begin playing alone, then gradually increase their time spent in groups as they progress. "This curve is too smooth to be random," Nic said, explaining that he believed this was deliberate design by Blizzard in nurturing a specific ramp-up of play experience. Nic also pointed out the importance of individual activity in the context of social presence: the fact that there are other people around, observing, and playing around you impacts even solo players. Also, WoW enables ad-hoc collaborative play such as the Naked Gnome Race, which didn't require any guild affiliation or instance to participate in. Nic notes that social platform games understand this well by building in accomodation for indirect socialization. Designing for the spectator is an important feature of WoW's success.
To think about collaboration in WoW, Nic looked at guilds and measured their life cycles. It turns out that maintaining guilds is extremely challenging! I was also surprised to learn that 90% of guilds have fewer than 35 members, which means that in the old days when you had to amass 40 people for a raid, very few guilds could have mustered the numbers on their own. Nic noted that it is possible to predict when guilds will fall apart -- two important factors were altruism and how well guilds evolve over their lifetime. Guilds which have higher-level characters helping low-level ones have a higher survival rate. And Nic noted that guilds face a moment of transition from early guild structure, which is usually organized into smaller teams loosely affiliated with eachother -- small tribes perfect for the early game instances and ad-hoc party play. However as the guild matures, it's impossible to handle the more complex instances without a central command structure. Many guilds are not able to evolve from small teams to a unified army, and often break up at that stage.
Finally, one of the most fascinating pieces of the talk was about personality. Basically Nic and his team asked whether in-game behavior could predict out-of-game personality. They had their subjects take Big 5 personality tests and then analyzed game trace data and lo and behold! Players who, for example, tended to be really outgoing in-game also tested positive for that trait in the evaluation. Nic suggested that if games could predict personality types by observing and recording in-game behavior, we could start making predictions about what sorts of gameplay players might like to pursue, and offer customized experiences tailored on the fly to a player's personality profile. A really exciting area to think about the future of game design!
The full talk and slides will be posted soon!