Monday, August 3, 2009

From Absurd Gamism to Moderate Simulationism

If you’re unfamiliar with the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory, please read the Wikipedia article before continuing.

I describe the current state of MMOs as unabashed absurd gamism. The game rules are so strict and so vaguely analogous to real life that the player is forced to suspend disbelief ad absurdum. The metaphors in MMOs are stretched so thin as to be entirely transparent. There’s not even the vaguest notion of realism, not even a modest smear of grit to mar the pristine landscapes that are otherwise dotted with any number of mediocre models there for the player’s pile of pixels to get stuck on.

The learning experience in MMORPGs amounts to becoming accustomed to the ludicrously tiny sliver of actions that your character can perform to effect a millionth of the tiny part of the world that is actually interactive and not just painted adamantium in the shapes of houses, mountains, trees, and terrain. There is a lot of room for MMORPGs to grow into a space that computers are built specifically to handle: simulation.

We have, at our fingertips, machines that can do on the order of 2^30 operations per second (and that’s only counting one CPU), yet we plink around straight-jacketed in game worlds about as rich as a street urchin with a 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars to his name. And it hasn’t gotten better since EQ. Instead of daunting worlds full of lethality and trials, we are confined to playpens full of brightly colored balls and clowns who mirthfully caper about to entertain us. It is entirely within our power to harness the capability of modern machines to do the complex calculations necessary to allow the player to enjoy a significantly more interactive and realistic world.

I’m not saying we should force players to piss in the woods every two hours or risk soiling their undergarments—I’m suggesting we build games that allow players to harness their creativity and knowledge of the real world to solve in-game problems. And if the player fails, he may actually learn something about the world he actually lives in (as well as the world his character lives in). Solutions do not need to be esoteric processes labored over by some poor intern. Just like in a tabletop roleplaying game, individual players can use what they know of the environment to come up with a solution.

Even if we do not open up the entire world to the player’s whims, we can at least aim to make combat more realistic and interesting. Perhaps it’s not best to make it as lethal as it is in real life, but at least we can all the players to use terrain, obstacles, and other features of the gameworld to their advantage—not the circle-strafing nonsense that goes on in games like Darkfall, but a more sensible system where positioning is crucial and in-battle tactics amount to more than what hotkeys you pound into the ground in what order. Shamus Young of Twenty-Sided wrote a great article where he proposed one such system.

One of my mission statements is to move MMOs from absurd gamism to moderate simulationism. That means making the game world more like a world and less like a set of gimmicks arranged to be quickly used up and discarded. I believe that this will be one of the many faces of the MMO revolution.


Anonymous said...

Wow it's a long time since I've heard anyone talk about the GSN model. I agree, MMOs ought to be ripe for simulationist design. And bizarrely, in some ways they are -- the economy for example.

evizaer said...

GNS is useful for discussion but isn't necessarily predictive. It gives a vocabulary to some ideas that I've had since before reading it, and I think the words are apt.

motstandet said...

Must a system have "earthly" or "real world" physics to be simulationist? Is it possible to change the physics in the system to be fantastical but still complex enough to warrant a simulationist label?

evizaer said...

I don't know if Edwards would agree with me, but I say "certainly". The only requirement is that there be a system of physical rules that governs the abilities of the players instead of abilities defined by arbitrarily placed game rules.

Both systems involve creating arbitrary sets of rules, it's mostly a matter of where you put them that separates the simulationists and gamists. Simulationists put them "as close to the metal" as possible, where as gamists put them wherever they think they are needed to produce the game as they want it.

motstandet said...

I'm working on a very deep crafting system which involves much more than: [List of Mats] -> [Product].

I don't want to reveal anything too prematurely, but Materials have properties which may not be known unless they are discovered. And the ability to discover a property might depend on knowing a certain technology--and so on the rabbit hole goes.

I'm working on a way to procedurally generate large amounts of the system, which would produce things (I'm purposefully being vague) not present in the real world. There would be a make-believe physics system as the back bone of the generated content. This would make the content of the system consistent and possibly "simulationist", yet possible to advance ad infinitum.

To ease players into the system, it can be anchored on real world concepts like Newtonian physics, water, causality, etc.. But I don't want to just copy RL physics because 1. everything isn't known; 2. simulating all known physics would be an endeavor which would result in leaving certain things out or abstracting things too broadly; 3. even if Einstein himself decided to "play" the system, he would have to discover the new physics, and that's where the fun is (learning).

Tesh said...

That's what I thought the initial promise of these games was; a "virtual world" where those interesting "what if" questions could be asked and the answers explored, with a few friends on hand for when things (inevitably) get dicey. That's the power of games and fantasy in my mind; the ability to go places that you can't in real life, hopefully to learn something that *can* apply in real life.

Instead we get tired old game mechanics with a veneer of bling, tuned to a dripfeed to keep players hooked up to the subscription business model.


Melf_Himself said...

I reach a similar viewpoint from the opposite direction.

Games don't need to simulate anything. I find that the ones that do, don't usually do it in an intuitive way, and they just require learning a bunch of arbitrary systems that the game designers thought up (see: Dwarf Fortress).

I'd much rather that the game designers be given free reign to make any interesting game mechanics that they like, emphasizing fun over realism.

Of course, modern MMO mechanics aren't fun. So, I agree that they need to be changed ;)

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I never like it when people use the world "realism" to describe games. It's either not what they mean (usually they want consistency), or they don't quite understand what it would mean.

I think a good thing to look at is Guitar Hero. A lot of people deride it as being a waste of time because you could be learning the real guitar instead of just playing a game. Sure, but it's more fun to play a rhythm game rather than building up callouses. And, I know I'll never be a world-class guitarist, drummer, or singer. But, I can live a bit of fantasy that I can put on an awesome concert through the game.

Want realistic combat? Join the military. Or take some martial arts. Or even join a fencing club. You'll get all the "real" combat you want. Then you can play an MMO to have fun when you're done beating yourself up. ;)

Instead of wishing for simulation instead of game rules, look at why hit points, etc. are the norm. Here's a quick list:

- The system if familiar, few need a tutorial.
- You can make a mistake but still recover.
- Combat is long enough to make decisions.
- Characters can be invincible to low-levels enemies.
- NPC AI is easy to implement.
- Gear upgrades are plentiful.

Not to say that the current system of hit points is the best of all possible solutions, but take a careful look at what it provides. Then, make sure you understand the tradeoffs your system will have to make, and where difficulties could arise.

evizaer said...

Psychochild, I'm not endorsing realism necessarily.

"Both [gamism and simulationism] involve creating arbitrary sets of rules, it's mostly a matter of where you put them that separates the simulationists and gamists. Simulationists put them "as close to the metal" as possible, where as gamists put them wherever they think they are needed to produce the game as they want it."

I'm asking for consistency and for the game system to be at a lower level of abstraction than they currently are. With this, I'd like the metaphors that connect MMOs to real life to be strengthened. This will produce a more intuitive and rewarding in-game experience--much more intuitive and rewarding auto-attacking the hate-based systems with hotkey mashing.

Dblade said...

It's hard to see how it can work. Instead of reducing a dragons HP to zero, lure it into a box canyon and pelt it with spears? I'm trying to think of creative ways to deal with common MMO encounters and am coming up with a blank.

evizaer said...

Common MMO encounters are boring, rely on poor AI, have static terrain--they are basically trivial.

You also forget that you don't have to fight everything and everything doesn't have to fight you. If you're sitting in a cave pelting a dragon with spears, it will go away or it'll plug your cave with a rock and make you starve to death. It could also just breathe fire into the cave and roast you alive, because I doubt you could throw spears further than a dragon's fire breath unless you were some kind of god.

With a more simulationist approach, you don't always have to solve problems through direct combat and you don't always have to win combat through pressing hotkeys to smack your opponent with a sword or spells.

It's easy to lose your creativity when you're stuck doing trivial crap for 90% of just about every MMO in existence. You begin to think that trivial is the right difficulty--and that's just nonsense.

Verilazic said...

I agree, common MMO encounters are trivial. But I bet there are a lot of different views on exactly where the line should be placed to signify "moderate simulationism", since it's possible to go too far in the other direction as well. Hm, reading back, I like what Melf's comment: worry more about coming up with fun mechanics than realism. And right now, we don't have very many fun mechanics.

Unknown said...

I've kinda thought about this myself, but as a way to model reality by using turning pre-existing worlds in to user-driven simulations. For example, what if we took WoW and removed the pre-existing quest/vendor system? Each player would have to craft everything with their own tradeskills, or purchase it from other players. Professions could emulate the "real world" and be more like daily/weekly quests, except more dull.

Suddenly mail doesn't simply appear at all locations instantly, but they have to be carried by a player whose profession it is to deliver mail. Blacksmiths are in the forges, tailors at their looms, crafting various items to meet the demand of current and incoming players. Horses must be tamed before being sold by those interested in husbandry & training, flight paths must be plotted & taught to the mythical beasts by Journeyman Flightmasters, Shirts wear out every couple months and must be patched or replaced. Language and literacy is learned, and ink & paper are used for messages. When plate is punctured, it requires metal to be patched.

Every player has to manage his or her own Fatigue, energy, health, hunger, hydration, honorable-ness and rage (You can't do that while you're angry). Those interested in magic must hunt artifacts, other players and find leylines from which to draw mana.

Those interested in more complex machines or even houses must craft or collect large amounts of materials, and those products stick around for the community as a whole even after the player logs off, as they are replaced by a computer-driven NPC during normal hours (think of the usefullness of a bot program that's built into the game, like a macro system). Businesses can be created by hiring NPCs to sell your wares, create your basic products, and even give profession quests for you, while you do your routines or explore the world around you. Walls could be set up around trade centers and various levels of guards hired to make sure the opposing factions cannot invade and leave your city in ruins.

As for combat, there's plenty. Combat is learned originally with dueling and instruction, and later with actual opposing NPCs and players, depending on the world events. Raids consist of world bosses and opposing factions. Some players will gear and spec for solo combat, others learn skills to increase group dynamics. Experience, if it even exists, would be given by combat, quests, crafting, exploring and other interactions with players and the world as a whole.