Monday, August 31, 2009

Information Availability: An Underused Asset

MMOs are confronting a unique challenge in the gaming world: detailed information is available about any MMO—and is expected to be available—that can potentially compromise the fun of the game.

This problem is critical in MMOs but inconsequential in single-player games. It’s easy to control information flow in single-player games. You reveal information to the player as you see fit. You do not need to design with the expectation that your players will enter the game world knowing how the game works and exactly what they’re going to do to get as powerful as possible. Players can gain more information than they should simply by playing the game multiple times (or by going online and reading FAQs and guides)—this is an unavoidable situation but it’s not usually a problem. In a single-player game, there can be some illusion of fairness: some illusion that a player will not try to completely compromise the game by finding game-breaking exploits and repeatedly performing them. Such an illusion is reasonable because if the player exploits a game to death, the only person they’re harming by performing the exploit is themself. They’re robbing themself of the full experience of playing through the game as it was intended to be played.

But in multiplayer games, it’s expected that the players know the game systems well—if a player doesn’t start without enough skill, he is stigmatized. When failures affect other people, failing has a multiplicative effect and can cascade, causing disproportionately large penalties. When a game is conceived without a single-player mode, the learning ground must be built into the multiplayer experience. RPGs are naturally attuned to this learning stage because character growth is usually slower than player skill acquisition (provided that the player actually tries and isn’t babied through the content). MOBAs, as I discussed in an earlier post, do a poor job of this.

Information availability is a double-edged sword.

The first edge helps players: new players can more easily master the core concepts and mechanics of the game using the information available to them as an aid. This can cut down the trial-and-error needed to succeed in-game significantly. The community is doing the interface designers’ and documentation writers’ jobs by documenting the mechanics of the game: pointing out pertinent, critical information about the mechanics and how to use them in a reasonable way.

The second edge hurts game designers: no longer can static information be used as a critical point of gameplay—this means that typical means of storytelling in single-player games will not work as intended because they’ll be spoiler instantly and disregarded. When more than fifty thousand (or another arbitrarily large number) human beings are going to experience your content and solve the exact same problems, there is a sufficient market for the solution of those problems that the information will be made readily available. Gamefaqs and thottbot are the two websites that embody this principle, though one generally covers single-player games and the other only one massive multiplayer game. Players are incentivized to find thottbot when they play WoW. They’re incentivized to use addons like QuestHelper to help them streamline their play sessions—this is not because they want to compromise the content (as they regularly will do and blithely remove the fun from the game, then complain about it) but because they have no reason to avoid the good information that makes playing the game easier and significantly lubricates the otherwise daunting expanses of character advancement. As a designer, you must assume that story and fun will always be compromised by success in a social setting.

There are two take-aways I want to emphasize from this analysis:

  1. Designers in the MMO space do not need to be afraid of creating deep, complex, and difficult games composed of mechanics that take time to learn and master. As long as character advancement reveals abilities and mechanics at a sufficiently slow pace without boring seasoned gamers, complexity and depth can be assets without presenting players with a wall of unmitigated and impassible difficulty. Information availability should be emphasized in-game to allow players to learn faster and become versed in the fundamental mechanics as soon as possible.

  2. Storytelling needs to be rethought. Static stories will no longer be effective for a large enough percentage of the playerbase (and for the louder part of the playerbase). Even more flexible conversational systems (like Star Wars: The Old Republic’s system) are fodder for expanding informational awareness. New ways of storytelling need to be invented that allow for dynamic worlds that aren’t as dull as procedurally generated content tends to be.

1 comment:

Tesh said...

Static stories aren't a good fit for MMOs in the first place. The selling point of these things is to play with other people, telling your own stories. If everyone is just going through the same script, there's not much point in playing online with other people.

MMOs really do need to be dynamic worlds where players are the prime movers and storytellers, not the devs. That's scary ground for devs, though, since so many people are so stupid when online, so we'll continue to see MMOs as the hollow stages that they have been.