Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Abominable Aphorisms

I’m growing increasingly bored with pseudo-aphorisms some MMO bloggers and many commenters spout continuously. Having to repeatedly deal with the same empty rhetoric slows the conversation to a crawl at times. I’m going to address a few of those abominable aphorisms here in abbreviated form.

“Don’t release it until it’s finished.”

When’s it finished? When is what finished?

If you finish the design, that means it’s perfectly balanced and precisely accomplishes your goals. The only way you know if this is the case (turns out it’s never the case) is when you’ve actually got users to bang on the code and tell you if it satisfied them and therefore satisfies your requirements.

If you finish the coding, that means there are no bugs. None. This is impossible. If there aren’t bugs in your code, there are probably bugs in someone else’s code that’ll make it seem like there are bugs in your code. Driver issues? The player will think you haven’t finished the game, even though it’s probably the hardware manufacturer who is at fault.

You can’t finish the coding until you’ve finished the design.

The limit isn’t in developer ability—the limit is time. Time strangles every project (except for Duke Nukem Forever). In games as complex as MMOs, nothing ever gets finished: devs just stop working on them.

“Change for change’s sake is bad.”

A patch that arbitrarily changes an existing game is bad, but that’s only one small corner case that fits under this infeasible saying.

If people never invented just to see what could be made, no one would have invented videogames. Also: familiarity bias.

“The glory days of MMOs are long past.”

Take off your rose-colored glasses. Nostalgia bias is messing with your gaming experience.

The “glory days” MMOs were new to you then. There were, like, three of them out at the time. You had to love them or leave the genre. You’re still here because you loved them. It doesn’t mean they were good, or that they’re better than what’s available now.

“If only the MMO devs would learn from the past, then…”

MMO devs play fewer MMOs than a current MMO player. Why? Because they’re busy spending 10-16 hours a day making MMOs! They don’t know everything about every obscure MMO—they don’t even have a good handle on all the popular MMOs. It takes months of un-interrupted play time to get a full handle on the mechanics and dynamics of a modern MMO. Who has time to do that but the most hardcore players, people who are usually college students or unemployed?

“If it works, don’t mess with it!”

This naive view assumes that fun is objective. Fun isn’t. Different games vary in fun from minute to minute for each player. Fun is contextual and highly subjective. What you think is fun is not fun for everyone. Nothing ever objectively works—nothing ever works for everyone.

Also, MMOs are a bit complicated. There are thousands of game rules that interact in millions of ways. If you take a few of those game rules out or tweak them, the game may become a complete mess. Removing rules from the system may break the game as a whole. The dependencies between the rules are very complex—it’s extremely difficult to extricate one specific mechanic and say “isolated from everything else in a game, this works.”

It’s much easier to point to things that are broken. But in order to fix them, we have to know why they are broken. Rarely is it obvious. Sometimes it’s because the game will never be well-balanced due to systemic flaws. Sometimes it’s just one rule that needs tweaking; but you can’t know all the consequences of fixing what is broken without trying. Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.


Sara Pickell said...

Is it okay if I just say "hear hear!"?

Borror0 said...

"A patch that arbitrarily changes an existing game is bad"

I disagree. Change for the sake of change is good. Of course, it's preferable to have a patch that changes bad things into better things but change, itself, is valuable for the game studio.

By changing the environment, you're forcing the players to adapt and that, itself, is a new challenge. It provides something new to chew on, even if it is less liked than the previous designed it's often better than a static game. In a way, "change" is content.

Green Armadillo said...

If you exclude the loudest of the forum trolls, it isn't that hard to objectively judge whether the game that actually launches is close enough to what was promised. (See Champions' infamous post-beta balance patch.)

You can argue semantics that we should refer to such a game as "not ready" or "released too soon" instead of "not finished". You could also argue that the game launched because it was launch now or launch never after the studio goes under. Neither change alters the facts, and all three convey essentially the same meaning. (Unlike, say, the word "casual", which I do my very best to avoid using because it clearly does not have a universally accepted meaning.)

Alan Labouseur said...

The “Don’t release it until it’s finished.” mentality is completely wrong. Releasing too late has cost many a company valuable market share, sometimes fatally. Common entrepreneurial wisdom these days is more along the lines of "Don't worry, be crappy." You need feedback from your customers in order to improve, so release and begin the process of improving. If you are not a little embarrassed about your first release then you waited too long.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

You forgot the classic, "The customer is always right." which often really means, "I, your customer, am the best possible designer; implement my ideas."