Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Combat Addiction

One of the first exercises we did in a fiction writers’ workshop I attended involved writing a story in which no one died. It seems like an easy constraint to work around, but through doing the exercise you realize that we rely heavily on death to dramatize events, even in everyday conversation. Removing such a tool from a writer’s repertoire complicates the process of building drama—you have to use more intricate characterizations to allow the characters to establish relationships that reverberate beyond the simple binary of life and death.

Death is cheap and overdone. Violence is the easiest and most dramatic way to kill—death confers its gravity to violence. Nothing is flashier, scarier, more engaging sans-context than violence. Cheap fun is violent fun.

The “explicit” culture of the west loves to show everything in brutal, washed-out, overacted detail. Flashy content draws eyeballs and eyeballs mean ad money. As movies and TV grow flashier, people grow accustomed to the flashiness and want more. Games follow the same trend.

Now that technology allows great special effects, directors and game developers no longer need to be inventive and implicitly communicate with their audience—they ship off a work request to 3D artists and animators who put together an explicit, flashy scene leaving little to the imagination.

Games default to being about combat because violence is the easiest way to give meaning to actions. It's the cheapest way to draw attention. Creating game mechanics to model combat also makes the most sense, because combat is the simplest and most dire form of dramatic conflict between two people.  Conversations between characters are destined to be boring in games focused and fixated on combat, because a scene where someone’s death is all but guaranteed will make any conversation but the most interesting and well-written seem bland.

Read a great writer's work or watch a great movie and you won’t see rampant action and impending death as the focus of every scene. Good movies do not flag in the “boring parts” where guns are put away and characters engage in negotiations or simple conversation. Well-executed storytelling can include violence, but often doesn't need it--only the threat of violence or the tension of the interactions between well-defined characters.

The storytelling in so many videogames is so awful because of this overreliance on violence. It’s the easiest way to draw eyeballs and create drama, though, so we’re bound to see combat as the focus of the majority of games in the future.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sandbox MMO Design Problems

After analyzing themepark MMO issues for most of the month. I will switch gears and post more about issues with sandbox MMO design. The sandbox genre is significantly smaller and makes much less money than the themepark paradigm, so people often dismiss it as a niche and an inferior product. Current-gen sandbox MMOs are an inferior product, in my opinion, because they are often poorly designed and poorly implemented; there are so few of them that only one, EVE, is an example of a successful, well-produced, accessible sandbox game.

Sandbox MMOs stick too closely to themepark norms of character development—they focus on PvP, but do not take the core of competitive gaming to heart. They encourage society building but don’t facilitate it through non-game-mechanical social tools.

The five major design issues I have with current-gen sandbox MMOs:

  • The Logging-off Problem. Players can’t be logged into the game at all times. Important stuff is bound to happen when they are not logged in—especially when the good players are sleeping. The more “impact” the PvP is, the more the logging-off problem nags at the game design. No one likes to be absent when the important stuff is happening—but it’s in your opponent’s best interest that you be absent when the important stuff is happening to you.
  • Excessive vertical advancement. Nothing stifles a competitive game more than an uneven playing field. Gating advancement in a sandbox game in a WoW PvE kind of way (i.e. no skill needed to advance, just time investment) is counter to the point of having competitive PvP. Vertical advancement should be short, quick, and rewarding. It shouldn’t be more than a brief introduction to the meat of the game. Player skill should account for character growth, not pure time investment. PvP games make their money through being exclusionary, so this isn’t a problem.
  • The Player-is-a-Peon Problem. When your impact PvP world consists almost entirely of players, players must play the role of worthless peons. Players have to grind for money for their guild, they have to grind tradeskills and watch progress bars for hours, they have to engage in all other kinds of extremely mundane, boring, and poorly-designed tasks in order to have the slim chance of impacting the world in any significant way.
  • Themepark-style newbie zones mislead players. Shadowbane motivates this point. Using crappy themepark PvE introductory material to lead into a brutal impact PvP world not only doesn’t make sense, it is outright misleading and counter-productive. Darkfall went too far in the other direction by doing no handholding whatsoever, which is probably a better approach than lulling your players to sleep in themepark gameplay and then breaking open their skull with impact PvP once some arbitrary level is achieved.
  • Infantile community building tools. Sandboxes should be all about community facilitation and development. Darkfall has a worse guild interface than WoW does—how do they justify this? If a sandbox game can’t even get simple guild features right, how do they expect to survive? Sandbox games need better community-building tools—like mature accountability systems.

Sandbox MMOs do not benefit from integrating themepark elements—they’re a different kind of game entirely. Applying themepark norms to sandboxes is degenerative. Almost as degenerative as trying to apply single-player game norms directly to MMOs.

I’ll spend more time in the future on sandbox MMO design issues: their causes, their effects, and possible solutions. Compared to themepark MMOs, sandbox MMOs have a longer way to go before they are designed well.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The iPad is a Game-Changer

Today, Apple announced their newest product: the iPad. It’s a 9.7” diagonal touch screen computer. The iPad is what netbooks should have been. It’s a sexy piece of technology. And it maxes out at just above $800, with the base model costing $499.

apple-creation-0097-rm-engiPad MMOs could revolutionize the genre. The graphical capabilities will not be up to par with even a low-end gaming PC, of course, but the ability to play on the go with a touch-screen interface—that is, literally, game-changing. The iPod Touch was a step forward—the iPad’s screen size make more serious gaming inevitable, and games designed with the touch interface in mind will change the way we play in a fundamental way. Think of commanding a starship with your hands, with a user interface ala Minority Report. Imagine drawing on your screen the path your character’s sword will travel. Multi-touch opens up so many fine-grained interactivity options for combat, crafting, maneuvering, and just about anything you do in a virtual world.

Think that typing on a software keyboard (one that appears on the screen and provides no tactile feedback) will wear thin? Apple has an accessory that allows you to plug the iPad into a keyboard dock and type more comfortably as the machine charges. Combining keyboard input and touch screen input will lead to some exciting changes in how we implement game interfaces.

Micro-transactions will be easily implemented through in-app purchases. We might not even need separate billing sites—just use the iTunes store and in-app purchasing mechanisms.

I’m really excited about this. This device is something special.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Themepark MMO Triviality and Meaninglessness (Pt. 2)

Last post I wrote about two design pitfalls that can trivialize themepark MMOs and render play meaningless. Today, I’ll finish that article with the third point: relative power’s stagnation.

The Relative Power Quagmire

The relative difficulty of content should actually increase as the character advances. More abilities to use means more combinations of abilities that can be more effective. The relationship between usable abilities and character power is better than additive. Players will use more complex combinations of complementary abilities to achieve significant power increases level-over-level. The character’s power not only gains the added bonus of having one more spell, but also the upside of all the combinations that amplify or are amplified by that new spell.

To keep players interested in the game, the game should push the player towards learning more about game systems. This push doesn’t need to be forceful—a small increase in relative difficulty would incentivize learning without frustration. If there is no relative difficulty increase, the player will probably enjoy the game at first, feeling that the relative weakness of enemies is a reward for their advancement, but in the near future difficulty stagnation trivializes the content and, by extension, the game as a whole.

When I played Lord of the Rings Online a year or so ago, the Minstrel class became surprisingly powerful at mid-levels because the class accumulates a group of synergistic abilities that feed into one another to create supremely powerful soloing combinations. The time it takes to kill a mob solo are reduced by half—the games become significantly easier in the span of 5 levels, even when fighting even-level opponents! The non-linear leap in character power trivializes all content that is linearly more difficult than last level’s. I rapidly become bored with the game because trivial content gave me a clear view of the grind and led to disinterest.

Strategic Blandness –> Artificial Difficulty –> Player Frustration

Themepark MMOs have very little strategic depth, which means that the game is only fun until you run out of static content to complete. The game must fall apart within a certain number of hours because it's just an elongated series of relatively boring trivially easy tasks that grow your character through solely the investment of time. (See also: my posts on the content problem, and why themepark MMOs are easy.)

The developer has two options to keep monthly subscribers playing:

  1. Make more content. Don’t let players go without new content for too long or they’ll leave.
  2. Because sufficiency skill tests are not feasible, implement means of artificial difficulty. Increase the length of the leveling curve, the gear grinds at level cap, make quests repeatable and put rewards at the end of a larger number of repetitions, etc.

We generally do not see (2) directly; we see a combination of (1) and (2). More content is added and that content is artificially made more difficult through requiring steep time investments in order to get certain desirable rewards. Daily quests and instances are examples of this design methodology. The content, in either case, is strategically bland, so once the change of scenery loses its appeal, players will feel that the content is trivial and grindy.

Strategic Blandness –> Content Exhaustion –> Player Boredom

This progression is common among achievers and powergamers. Players are good enough to complete the strategically bland content quickly and climb the reward ladders easily. They reach the end of the reward ladders that they find worth climbing and find themselves confronted with nothing interesting left to do. The pattern of content exhaustion continues until the player understand the pattern and tires of gear- and reward-reset cycles.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Themepark MMO Triviality and Meaninglessness (Pt. 1)

This is the first article of two about what kinds of design decisions can make themepark MMOs trivial and meaningless as games. The community can provide meaning to themepark MMOs and often does much more in that area than the games themselves do, but for the sake of my continuing analysis of themepark MMOs as games, I will focus only on the game design.

I have identified three sources of triviality and meaninglessness in themepark MMOs. These sources can be treated as the reverse of what you should do in order to design a good themepark MMO.

  • The meaningful (content) is subordinated to the meaningless (rewards).
  • A more powerful character cannot effect the world more than a weaker character.
  • Unchanging or increasing character power relative to even-level encounters as character level increases.

In this article I will cover the first and second. In the next article, I will give a longer treatment to third.

The Subordination of the Meaningful to the Meaningless

Players should want to play themepark MMOs because of their content. Content is the focus of the game’s design and implementation. The game is based around setting up reward streams, the rewards allow you to advance to more content. Playing the game to receive rewards logically indicates playing the game for its content. In the player’s mind, rewards should be below content in importance. Players should want to play through a raid more than they want the rewards from that raid, because the rewards only enable them to raid further. If players don’t find raiding particularly fun, why would they raid to get rewards that would only facilitate raiding more? The design is clearly at odds with player behavior here. Players need a constant stream of rewards because the content is drab, but the rewards are only valuable insomuch as they apply to future content.

Rewards are made meaningful by the content they bookend and enable. If the content on either end of the reward is trivial or meaningless, the rewards are meaningless. If the players value the rewards over any content, the rewards are meaningless and the content is meaningless. If content is trivial, rewards are meaningless.

A game cannot long trick a player by rewarding him and building expectations without delivering on them. This is the source of burnout in MMOs. When a player burns out, she played the game to be rewarded, but the rewards didn’t build up to anything she thought was greater and worth achieving. You will find the source of bitterness and disgust among ex-MMO players comes from here, as well.

Too many (perhaps all) themepark MMOs rely on the reward expectation escalation trick to hook and keep players. It works well as long as there are fresh players to use up, but it is not sustainable. Most players will burn-out on not only a specific game that uses this trick, but on the entire genre.

Characters Powerless to Change Anything Beyond Themselves

Growth in MMOs is meaningless, or without substance, when the player cannot effect the world. In most themepark MMOs, a character can only effect himself in a significant way, and other characters by small, usually impermanent, degrees.

In real life, the concept of “power” centers on the ability to effect others. A powerful person can bring grave or wondrous events to reality that cause millions of people to instantaneously alter their behavior. When the Germany declared war on Poland to start World War II, several diplomats and world leaders instantaneously unleashed millions of soldiers onto the fields of battle, ending hundreds of thousands of lives and significantly altering the daily lives of millions of people.  Clearly, those German diplomats and leaders were powerful people.

You're only becoming more powerful in a meaningful way when you can effect the world in more significant ways through your actions. If you can't actually effect the world in any way and mob power is relatively equal with the character's, there's no meaning to the character gaining power. Gaining power doesn’t manifest itself in any meaningful way within the game.

A themepark MMO can only survive so long on the illusion of power gain.  A substantive form of power in the game world provides a source of meaning in gameplay—without power meaning something, character growth is effectively trivialized.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Including: Our Destruction

Why did WoW succeed and how do other MMOs manage to fail when Blizzard has seemingly laid the path to 14 million users bare for all to see?

Look no further than community dynamics in both society and, by extension, in MMOs: you’ll see that Blizzard’s success is not a blueprint for future success, but instead a monumental step forward that can only happen once—this step forward has unalterably changed the community dynamics of MMOs by willingly including an unprecedented number of new people into the MMO gaming.

The Community: Exclusion Builds and Inclusion Destroys

[This is an introduction to community dynamics in real life. If you wish to skip this section, you can do so without missing out on anything particularly necessary, though I encourage you to read this because it may help you to understand some very important patterns in real communities.]

Without some way of effectively figuring out who you can trust, you can’t get anything substantial done aside from watching and guarding your own interests closely. We more efficiently pick who we trust through membership in social institutions, communities. We establish social institutions as a way of formalizing rules for who we can and cannot trust. If someone is in my community, it means that people (who I trust) trust that person, therefore that person is worthy of my trust. Instead of spending the significant amount of time required to personally establish a trust-bond in my relationship with a stranger, I can see that they are a part of my community, even though I don’t know them directly, and immediately begin working with them—I can safely assume a base level of trust. My trust in this stranger probably won’t be violated, because we’re both a part of this community and we both want to remain parts of this community.

Members in a community want their community to be exclusionary—people who they should not trust should not be a part; most people are not trustworthy. Members of a community know of their membership because they can tell that other people are not in the community. Strongly identifying who is not in your community gives you an identity through leaving out others. As the community grows to a sufficient size, members want membership to be more difficult to attain, more exclusive, more exclusionary; if a community is easy to join then there’s little meaning to membership. A loose community does a worse job of guaranteeing a base level of trust between its members. If a community member is not in a position of power, and therefore de facto superior, they want only people that they view as their equals or betters (i.e. people who are above-average in everything like they think they are) to be a part of their group, so they invent or improvise initiation procedures to reduce the chances of unworthy outsiders joining their clique. Rites of initiation are primarily barriers to make sure that new community members are serious about being a part of the community. Initiation raises the cost in leaving a community, because to join a new community an outcast would have to overcome initiation obstacles again instead of being productive and progressing. This higher cost of leaving incentivizes community members to continue being trustworthy.

When too many people join the clique (when the population exceeds the Dunbar’s Number for humans), it segments into several smaller communities. Each of these communities is exclusive, while the over-extended clique which birthed the smaller communities appears to be inclusive.

Community-through-Play to Community-from-Play

You used to play games with people because you knew them. Your friendship extended into playing the game, whether the game involved cooperation or competition, direct or indirect. Either way, you rarely met someone while you were playing the game unless you were in an arcade—though arcades fell out of mainstream gaming well before the gaming scene picked up mainstream appeal in the 1990s.

Think back on board games that have existed since well before the advent of the videogame. Board games were an activity used to further socialize with people you knew. They were a gathering place where already-established relationships could be molded and strengthened (or tested, in many cases).

MMOs work in reverse. They start you on wobbly legs in an unknown universe that includes thousand of people with whom you have no relationship. An oft-overlooked though crucial process in an MMO: How a new player goes from being excluded by all and unskilled to being a functioning member of a community. How do players form bonds with other players?

If the game is exclusionary by its nature, like a current-gen sandbox PvP game, the community is against the player from the outset. The new player is weak and everyone else is a potential wolf. The new player cannot be trusted, because he could be a spy, a saboteur—or maybe he’s a useless scrub and if we outfitted him we’d just be wasting our money.

But if the new player survives this hazing and becomes initiated into the group, the bond is tighter because the group actively excludes and identifies itself through that exclusion.

World of Warcraft is the opposite.

From Exclusion to Inclusion: Game Design

In the past, games brought together people with similar interests—namely, playing games. The clique of gamers was tight-nit and exclusionary. If two gamers met and could identify one another as part of the group, they would immediately have a strong rapport. Gamers looked down at non-gamers as people who “just don’t get it”.

Games were designed for gamers. They became more complex and more difficult as players and game designers learned and explored more games. In this way, games became increasingly exclusive to those who could play them, and, by extension, those who had played earlier games.

To make games into a business on a wide scale, corporations had to sell games to people who had not played games before. Console gaming’s success over the past thirties has opened the floodgates—now console gaming is mainstream. A community that used to be exclusionary is now forced to be inclusionary. Being a gamer is more nebulous than it even has been.

Blizzard’s Open Gates

We should not be surprised that Blizzard took an exclusionary and elitist MMO design paradigm and tried to make it inclusionary by removing skill tests, requiring less time, and assuming little-to-no player cooperation. Inclusive game design opens the game to millions of players who otherwise wouldn’t have the time or interest to pay for the game. Just let people play the game easily and encourage them to keep playing, and you’ll find that you’re suddenly making much more money.

But this move costs World of Warcraft in community coherency and quality. And community is a surprisingly strong factor in why people keep playing MMOs—it means more to  many players than the game mechanics themselves. By trying to include as many people in the game’s community as possible, Blizzard fractured the game’s community and made it meaningless to be a part of the WoW community, so the broader community of WoW is a dead space full of genuine trolls and normal people turned into adversarial jerks by the community-less nature of the game.

(See also Elder Game’s article, “Community Friendliness: Size Matters”.)

Letting just about anyone play WoW was a conscious decision by Blizzard: they traded community quality for profit potential. They were the first to do it and they thrive for this reason. WoW succeeds because the game design is inclusionary and people actually showed up to play.  Why did they show up? Because the other games in the market had their gates closed to all but those who knew a closely-guarded password, while WoW had theirs open to anyone who happened to wander by.

If people don’t show up to play an inclusionary game and stay, the benefit of being inclusionary evaporates. Left in the ruins are a weak community and a mediocre-at-best game.

MMO Design as Community Design

An MMO designer is a community designer. She designs an ecosystem where communities subsist, merge, diverge, devolve, and re-emerge. The MMO should be first considered as a place where communities live, and secondarily as a game. This doesn’t mean the game should be second-rate and tacked-on as it is in Second Life—I mean that MMOs should function well as community environments just as they should function well as games. When working out the basic mechanics—how the world works—designers should consider that this is a world where players should want their characters to live. The possible effects a player can have on the world should be designed with their community-wide effects in mind, not just their effects on one player.

The central question in game design, “would this be fun?”, should be augmented in MMO design with “would this contribute to the creation and maintenance of communities?”

World of Warcraft is the only MMO that can succeed on such an enormous scale by simply opening its gates to all comers. The next significant step forward in MMO design will be taken by the designers who put the community first in their minds and let the design flow from there. The pre-pubescent viral facebook games are only the first baby steps of this new design pattern in MMOs.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Game Concept: Time-travel Themepark MMO

[This is a brainstorming post: a brainstorm on a radical and mind-bending idea. Don’t expect all difficulties to be solved and all systems elucidated in this post. Here is only a summary of some of the aspects of a time-travel themepark MMO. If this idea can bear your criticism, I will develop it further into a more organized set of mechanics and post those here.]

Themepark MMOs restrict the number of players that can, at any point, complete certain content. In a non-WoW themepark MMO, this turns into a severe problem. Population has never remained above critical mass to make all group content work beyond the first few months of a new themepark game—there will always be parts of the game that too few players have incentive to complete (or redo) for the content to be doable or fun.

Why not try to remove as much content gating as possible in favor of allowing anyone to play with anyone else at any time and accomplish something meaningful in the process?

I’ve been pondering how to remove content gating from a themepark design, and I’ve come up with an odd solution: player time-travel.

Start with standard themepark core mechanics—vertical advancement via quest completion and gear gain, quest-based storytelling, static content—but instead of advancing your character permanently forward and being stuck playing your character at whatever power level it happens to have attained, you can choose  point in time at which to play your character.

A quest would be the atomic unit of time. You couldn’t jump into a quest in the middle of completing it—you’d only be able to time-travel to the beginnings of quests.

If someone invites you to a group, you’d be able to time-travel to the quest they’re on—you’d have the equipment you had gained through quests completed earlier in the game, but you wouldn’t have the equipment you’d gained in later quests. You’d be able to play with your friends at whatever point in the game they’ve reached without ruining the experience! In fact, you’d be advancing your character in ways that can ripple forward through time.

Whenever you travel back in time to do an earlier quest again, you create an alternate timeline. Now you can proceed forward in the game on the alternate timeline until you’re done playing with your friend. At this point, you can either merge your new timeline back into your main timeline and boost your main timeline character based on what your alternate timeline character gained, or you can keep the timelines separate and jump between them at a later point. (Say, if your friend logs back on a few hours later, you could come back and keep playing that timeline with him while still having your other timeline intact.)

Your character wouldn’t travel through time—you would be able to play your character at any point in time, up to where your most advanced timeline is in the story.

The game world would act as if you and your group members have an instance to yourselves. This seems like it would ruin the open-world feeling of the game—but not if other players at different points in time had “time-shadows” in your character’s world. Whoever is in the same area of the zone as your character would be visible, but partially transparent and in black-and-white. The nearer in time they are, the less transparent they’ll be. Only your group members will be visible as normal, though, because only they are at the same point in time as you. In this way, you’d be able to talk to other characters forward or backward in time—to you and the person you’re talking to the chat would be like normal, but, in game, it would be as if your character can perceive the variances in the 4th dimension directly and could “talk” through time.

Mechanics could easily be implemented that allow characters to pop into one another’s time so that there can be a unique open-world PvP element. Certain servers would allow this “popping”—the PvP servers—while PvE servers would not allow you to “pop” into a non-aligned character’s time.

In an MMO based on players travelling freely through time, anyone can play with anyone else. Guilds have have tremendous meaning in such a game. The social fabric of the game would be significantly stronger, because you can feasibly jump back to where a newer player is in the game and help them without compromising the content’s difficult and accomplishing nothing for you. WIth a proper UI, negotiating timelines would require only a little getting-used-to, a small cost to pay for such a huge benefit.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Games as Meta-art

I stated in my last post that I believe that games are a kind of meta-art. This statement is ridiculous on its face. I will provide a better account of its reasoning here.

Life is a meta-art. Life can be seen as process which generates art through the human medium. Games present processes which can generate art, as well, through the human medium. I say “human medium” here because without the human mind, the artificial patterns we call art would (1) not exist because they would not be created as art and (2) be as meaningless as the natural patterns we are not able (or that we are not there) to witness in the real world. Metaphoric games are an operational representation—though that representation might be quite limited, poor, or fanciful—of a facet of the real world. In the sense that they are complex metaphors, from them can come art.

Metaphoric games are created as sets of game rules which are, themselves, intertwining patterns that mirror (though in a fun-house mirror kind of way) patterns we can witness in real life.  I can look at a painting and find art in it in a similar way that I can look at a metaphoric game and find art in it. There are artificial patterns there, and I can recognize them as “artistic”.

You might not see those patterns as art. You might also not even be capable of seeing the same patterns I see, just as I might not be able to see the patterns you do. Does this make an experience of art any less what it is?

We have endless stale debate about the meaning of art because there no such essence, “art”, to which we all map certain objects that we call artistic. Art exists because we agree that certain organizations of light and sound evoke emotion through their relationship with life. Art, like all concepts encoded in language, only exists because it has a usefulness when combined with other words to express thoughts and feelings. Trying to define art in some objective precise fashion will always fail because producing such a definition would then require that we likewise precisely and objectively define all words in that definition, and all the words in all of those definitions, ad infinitum. We may have to, until we understand more about how the human mind works, agree to let art be the source of artistic experience and so leave the discussion.

Claiming games are meta-art does not imply that games are art or should be art, it means only that games are capable of producing artistic experiences.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Games as Metaphors; How Meaning Flows

“…We can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein (translation: G. E. M. Anscombe)

Games are objects of comparison. We compare our wits against another’s when we play strategy games, we compare our physical dexterity against one another’s when we play action games. Games exist as tests of our abilities, but also as experiences.

Story is the main engine behind games that are about an experience instead of skill tests. The story is really only a set of very strict (and often very simple) rules for setting the context of play within a game. The more strict the game rules and confining the options, the more  prognosticators will call the gameplay "story-based". JRPGs do this to such an alarming extent that I don't even go near the genre any more. Story in such games is set, linear (or a multi-linear, but still entirely pre-conceived), and unchangeable. Final Fantasy X is an experience—an experience which can only be fully had once, after which you’re essentially rewatching a movie.

I'm interested in games that present mechanics to generate stories and allow the player to control the interaction of these mechanics to generate their own stories—these games make it their goal to generate experiences for players uniquely each time the game is played. Europa Universalis III (and its expansions, which make the game well worth buying), Romance of the Three Kingdoms X, and the Football Manager games are like this.

I enjoy these games because they exist only as reflections of and comparisons to the real world. What makes EU3 so involving is that you’re creating a new world history that you can then compare against what really happened. A fascinating series of “what-if” scenarios can be played, and the player can play the role of important characters (or guiding hands) in each.

These games aim to create a metaphor. I believe such games are meta-art. Metaphoric games generate pieces of art. There is no reason a scene generated by a game cannot be as powerful as a good poem. Each frame rendered to your screen is a dynamic painting. It’s a depiction of a world that could be, a depiction of a different world from ours in which we willingly immerse ourselves. Through comparison with the real world, experiences in games can be akin to an aesthetic experience as deep as those that good art may generate.

Metaphoric games explore the human condition by simulating aspects of it in some limited way, clearing out the detritus and unnecessary complications that otherwise clutter our view of what occurs. Most of the time, clearing the detritus consists of removing the seriousness from otherwise extremely serious acts. But through playing out these limited simulations we can come to better understand our real world. The real world enriches and gives meaning to these games just as these games enrich our time in the real world.

Now we can establish a profound distinction between concrete and abstract games.

Abstract games, like solitaire, chess, go, checkers, backgammon, and basketball, are sets of rules that regulate the pursuit of some arbitrary goal. The rules and goals have nothing to do with real life—they are abstracted to be only meaningful in the context of the game to which they belong. These games give meaning to themselves through the act of play—they also give meaning to the world around them because they are the purest form of goal-seeking we see in real life. This is why sports analogies are so common.

Concrete games, like Madden, Rome: Total War, Civilization, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, derive sets of rules from real world (or possible) scenarios and provide goals that are similar to goals that would naturally arise in the real world. Concrete games are metaphoric games. They are metaphors for some aspect (or aspects) of the real world. These games are given meaning by the real world.

The difference between abstract and concrete games is the direction in which meaning flows. Does meaning flow from the game into real-life? Does it flow from real-life into the game?

[Praise for this post: "It's so bad it looks like parody of New Games Journalism. That is to say parody of a parody -- a meta-parody, as it were." -Alex Kierkegaard. Thanks for reading, Alex! Also, thanks for the links from your site. I appreciate that you would willingly alert people to my blog, it's quite a compliment.]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Towards a Universal Game Language

If you can express a game to a computer (through the act of programming), then there must be a language (as in a language produced by a generative grammar) that can describe that game and all games that can be similarly expressed. You could say that such a language is a programming language—which is true—but we can clearly make a non-programming language that can succinctly and precisely express game mechanics of any game that can be programmed into a computer.

A game, as it exists and is played, is just billions of ones and zeroes on your harddisk. All of the game assets and compiled code that resides on your machine expresses a game to your computer. Your computer reads and interprets these chunks of binary data to put certain pixels on your screen at a certain time depending on a myriad of game rules and your input. The compiled code and assets on your machine represent everything that the game can be, as an entity. They are a complete expression of the game.

All modern computers (computers that use the von Neumann architecture) are simply glorified Turing Machines. A programming language is a way to tell that overgrown Turing Machine what to do. Any problem solvable by a computer can be expressed as a Turing Machine whose behavior is specified by a recursively-enumerable language. Programming languages are nothing more than recursively-enumerable languages.

Games are simply creative expressions of problems through the use of programming languages, graphics, and sound. If you can program a game into a computer, there must be a simpler language you can invent to specify games directly.

Let’s call this universal game language GLang. Here’s what we know about GLang without even doing any heavy lifting:

  • GLang will be no more complex than a Turing-complete programming language (a recursively-enumerable language) like C, C++, Java, Python, Ruby, Perl, etc.
  • The expression of a game in GLang will be shorter (probably by several orders of magnitude) than the code of the game, because games have to have a lot of code that manages assets such as graphics and sound, runs the server, and does all kinds of non-game-mechanic-related stuff.
  • A game expressed in GLang will be specified in a clear, precise, unambiguous, machine-readable way.
  • A specification in GLang can be verified as a complete expression of a game. Unfortunately, it’s not certain that you’ll be able to verify that it’s a complete expression of the game you want to express—that’s a chicken-and-egg problem, really.
  • Though the terminology different game designers use to describe their designs won’t all match up, we’ll have a distinctly and precisely defined set of terms for each game by the nature of the specification of that game in GLang. It doesn’t matter what you or I specifically call something (“stat” or “attribute” for instance), the game mechanic will be operationally defined by its relationships to other mechanics.

It’s clearly possible to make GLang a reality—it’s just a matter of applying ourselves to the problem and doing thinking damn hard for a damn long time. Forward-thinking designers like Raph Koster and Daniel Cook have begun work on ways to succinctly and clearly describe games. Koster has Game Grammars and Cook has Skill Atom Chains, and there's also St├ęphane Bura's attempt. I’m fascinated by this concept; I’ll be giving it a shot myself.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Themepark MMO Design: The “Content” Problem

Themepark PvE MMOs are content-reliant. You can only play the game as long as the game has pre-ordained tasks for you to complete. Once you’ve reached max level and done all the instances available, you’ll soon suffer burn-out. Themepark PvE MMOs take the single-player RPG, water it down, and add in some “group” content. CRPG devs would usually make people pay for expansions to add new content to their games, but their MMO brethren don’t have such a problem:they can make enough content to keep players playing primarily because the subscription model provides a continuous stream of money to fund new content creation.

A Brief Look at Content

It’s not easy to nail down a definition for content that most people will accept. But I think I can give us an operational definition that will at least allow us to use the word meaningfully.

When I talk about content in themeparks, I’m talking about stuff that the game gives you to do. Themepark devs codify “things to do” in quests most often. The content of a quest is how you pick it up, where you go to when you complete it, and what you’re doing to complete it. If you’ve done the same thing before or been to the same exact place before, the quest is still content, but just worse content.

We don’t have to deal with procedurally generated content here, because themeparks don’t care about it and rarely if ever implement it. We’re only concerned with the static tasks that the game gives the player. These tasks constitute the vast majority of the gameplay, so calling them “content” makes sense.

The Rides at the Themepark

The guiding paradigm in the themepark model: players consume content and are granted character power. The more content the player consumers when playing a character, the more powerful that player’s character should be. Since completing content is the central activity in the game, it makes sense that the act isn’t difficult. Content is engineered to be present a variety of experiences that are usually superficially different and rarely mechanically different. Content usually takes the form of quests that ask the player to interact with a series game entities in a certain order and return to the quest-giver or report to some other NPC.

Completing content pushes you through the geographical area just as it advances your character in power.

If You Build It, They Will Finish It

But with a surfeit of easy content, the player’s bound to finish it all sooner or later. A game’s most loyal and interested followers will tend to finish the content fastest. If a game’s relying on hand-crafted content to keep your players playing, as soon as the content runs out, players evaporate.

In a single-player game, this isn’t much of a problem because the profits come as soon as the player buys the box. There’s no marginal gain from the player playing the game any amount of time.

MMOs have persistent worlds. What’s the use of a persistent world if, well, things don’t persist? Who cares if the world persists if there are only ten hours of content? The point of persisting the world is to allow the player to embark on epic journeys in the same world as thousands of other players. The devs benefit from your continued adventuring because you pay them every month you continue to play, so devs are incentivized to stretch your epic journey as long as possible.

But in a themepark devs have to hand-craft every hour of content. They have to write text for it, they have to program event chains, they have to come up with rewards that make sense and storylines that (hopefully) make sense. They have to write reams of flavor-text no one will read—they have to justify a million kill 10 rats quests.

It stands to reason that a designer won’t have difficulty writing and designing another kill ten rats quest. Expanding on that, designers and artists wouldn’t have much trouble designing a new dungeon of kill ten rats quests and a few new boss encounters. How hard can it be to design easy content for the masses? Just slap that new dungeon onto the game world and repeat the process every few months to keep players playing.

You could conceivably run a game like this forever.

Last Stop: The Potemkin Village

This content is cheap, though. it’s nice to run once or twice, but grows tiring. Multi-tiered incentive structures keep players repeating this content for a while, though eventually they wise up and see that this is just a grind. There is no light at the end of this tunnel—the end of the game isn’t some glorious moment of euphoria and catharsis, it’s the disappointing instant you realize that you’ve done it all and your massive time investment amounts to a void smack-dab in the middle of the last year of your life.

What have you done?

You made some friends and have a few memorable tales. You have a few magic moments. But you spent thousands of hours for this.

And you’ve done nothing. The whole time you’ve been running on a treadmill as the devs put up a series of cardboard cut-out scenes next to you. They kept fans in front of you, blowing in your face to give you the feeling you were moving forward. Sometimes they sprinkled water or little bits of ice into the fan so you thought you were undergoing hardship. Sometimes they propped up the front of the treadmill so it felt like you were pushing hard to get to the glorious peak of a mountain.  You were so interested in seeing the “mileage” number tick higher on that treadmill that you forgot why you were doing this.

Eventually there will be no more cardboard cutouts and the fans will spin to a halt. You’ll step off the treadmill and wonder: “What happened?”

Once there was a world full of content ahead of you. The world was open and the air was crisp. Now what you thought were vistas turn out to be cardboard cutouts; what you thought was crisp air is actually the recycled air from a nearby air-conditioner. With the cardboard cutouts removed, the room is poorly lit and unadorned. You’ve slaved through all those trials, you’ve persevered for so many hours… for this?

The Problem

Themepark MMOs are games where only the journey itself can be the source of meaning because the in-game rewards are only useful on the journey; they will only move you forward on the next leg of your journey. The nature of static content dictates that this must be the case. Unfortunately, themepark MMO design subordinates the journey to the rewards, because if we didn’t want the rewards, why would we embark on the journey? Such a subordination of the meaningful to the meaningless is untenable.

A themepark MMO doesn’t justify itself. It’s a Potemkin Village where no one really lives or works. The only justifications are the relationships you form and foster, the friends you make and the good times you share. No amount of static content will change this reality.

[Don't bother with the "But everything is meaningless!" argument. I'm not saying that themepark MMOs are meaningless in the context of the world and real life, I'm saying that they render themselves meaningless through subordinating what should be meaningful, the journey, to what otherwise would be meaningless, the rewards. In this way, Themepark MMOs are designed in a self-defeating way. -Ev]

Monday, January 11, 2010

Alex Kierkegaard: The Smartest Guy in the Room

He’s called “icycalm” and he’d have you believe he’s the smartest guy in the room. He probably is; he certainly writes like it. He has played more games than I have—he’s played more games than my closest friends and myself combined. He knows what he’s talking about as a gamer. If you should read any gamers' views on gaming, you should probably read Alex’s.

The problem is that he writes as if he doesn’t want to be read. He insults his opponents and spends so much time telling you how smart and exceptional he is that you are forced to doubt it. His style and tone lead to most readers dismissing his writing. Neither he nor his ideas should be dismissed, but Alex insists on testing everyone’s patience. He’s saying some important stuff about gaming; he does himself a disservice by splattering insults and  self-congratulation throughout his otherwise fascinating writing.

Two of Alex’s articles every self-respecting gamer should read:

  • The heart of role-playing games isn’t smacking crap with a sword. In fact, most videogames classified as RPGs are far from deserving the title. Alex offers a great summary of the history of RPGs and how we’ve gotten to a this sad state.
  • Arcade culture—we should regret that we’ve lost it (or that we’ve never had it) in the West. Alex analyzes the arcade culture in Japan with a certain reverence and respect uncommon in his work. He tells you why the arcade ecosystem produces amazing games and how Westerners entirely miss the point.

Yes, these articles are long. I assure you that they’re worth your time if you are interested in gaming.

[Alex has responded to my post by calling me "trailer trash", and a "fagot". Sounds good to me. -Ev]

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Terminology Pedantry: “Stat” or “Attribute”?

I have a bone to pick with the word “stat” as used by game systems to describe the properties of game entities.

A "stat" is an observation codified into mathematical symbols about a thing or event that (it stands to reason) exists independently of the stat. If I roll a six-sided die, there are six possible outcomes. I roll the die a thousand times and make the observation that each outcome occurred a roughly equal number of times. I can say that I rolled “1” 180 times—this is a statistic.

Statistics don't determine what side of a coin comes up when you flip it. The attributes of the coin and the forces applied to it determine how it lands.

The word “stat” came into common use in this role because those numbers that describe (not determine!)the capacities of a person or thing in real life are called “stats”. The properties game designers ascribe to characters in a game would seem to be such measurements—but they are not. What we call “stats” in game systems are the actual factors that go into determining the results of actions; they aren’t measurements or observations and therefore aren’t suitably named.

An "attribute" or "property" is an actual child-fact itself. The attributes of a thing determine how it behaves. It doesn’t matter how you observe the behavior (on the scale of human beings), the causes and effects will remain consistent.

In a game system, game designers decide what properties different entities have. These properties, when we put numbers to them (like a “strength” score), are not statistics—they are the attributes of the game entity. A statistic would be like “your character succeeded in breaking this door after 3 kicks.” The attributes of the character and the door—what are usually called “stats”—are what actually determine if the door opens due to the blow.

“Attribute” is clearly a better word for the inherent properties of game entities. I tend to use this word to describe such properties when I talk about games, but no one seems to pick up on the distinction. It’s not really important, though, because people usually understand, in general gamer use, the word “stat”’s intended meaning. In the interest of clarity, I’ve made this post about the term. At least we can use the most clear words in our discussion here, so if we start talking about statistics and character attributes at once there won’t be meaning-confusion.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Themepark MMO Design: Optimizing Reward Distribution

The overarching goal of the themepark is to keep the player entertained through keeping them constantly in sight of the next goal. These goals are usually extrinsic and explicit. Themeparks rely on vertical advancement to provide a string of goals that lasts for a significant amount of time, first through levelling, then through gear and rep grinding. Once these goals are accomplished, the game is practically over, so themepark games need a reliable stream of content updates to sustain growth. Once a themepark game hits a critical mass of content, it can survive without new content for some time, though it may not grow, based on players rediscovering old content and new players occasionally signing up and enjoying old content.

The goals of the themepark model:

  1. Keep gamers occupied for some time while not requiring significant thought from designers. Adding a new dungeon is cheaper than adding new game systems, so release new ones just as players get bored with old ones.
  2. Ensure that gamers always have something to do—explicitly given to them—so that they don’t get lost while they have content yet to complete.
  3. Provide reward structures that incentivize the repeated completion of as much content as possible.
  4. Expose players to as little content as possible while still keeping their interest. Allow players access to as much content as possible provided the player spends enough time in-game. Expose them to content multiple times, but allow each occurrence to be far enough from the last that the content doesn’t get stale rapidly.
  5. Provide multi-tiered reward structures so the player receives a steady stream of rewards occasionally broken by discontinuous non-linear jumps in character power. Various currency systems that pay for different kinds of rewards can provide non-linear growth bursts that keep players interested.

All of these goals can be boiled down to one: Ensure that the player always has some new reward to gain and that the reward is obvious, desirable, and seems tantalizingly within reach.

Themepark MMOs are all about timing rewards. Well-timed rewards keep the player tickled and interested enough to continue doing otherwise repetitive actions. If the reward stream remains linear for too long and isn’t punctuated by non-linear jumps in character power, the player will become bored and be overcome by perceived “grindiness”.

Occasional jumps in progression succeed at keeping the player’s attention because people generally predict outcomes in a linear fashion based on their experiences. When factors compound to generate an exponential or logarithmic effect, the accuracy of an average person’s predictions will flag. In fact, many strategies in games are overpowered because they have some factor that exponentially relates to force effectiveness which leads to the force not only having an advantage, but having a growing advantage as the game progresses. The designer failed to see this exponential factor, because he didn’t notice that two linear factors were being multiplied into an exponential factor. Designers, just like players, will see the combination of linear factors and expect linear results—this is a flawed expectation that a good reward system will exploit.

The pacing of rewards ultimately decides the success of the themepark game. At the root of the themepark paradigm is character growth, and at the center of character growth systems are reward systems.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Imitation Rut

[This is a partner post to Psychochild's post "The Innovation Paradox".]

Today on “things you already know if you’re paying any attention to the MMO scene and this blog”: the MMO scene is in an imitation rut. So few MMOs have done anything profoundly different; they rehash others to a significant extent and often fail in the rehashing. The patterns have been set since Ultima Online and Everquest, modern games just have better graphics and rearranged deckchairs. There has been very little change in kind, and large changes in magnitude: WoW multiplied quests, games like Darkfall and Spellborne reshuffled combat, Aion amplified graphics, Fallen Earth and Vanguard expanded crafting, Guild Wars pushed instancing, WAR cranked up themepark PvP. But where have we gotten? Recent MMOs weaved a few innovations into the fold, but in general the framework is exactly the same. Progress has been glacial.

I feel like MMOs are in the early stages of development as an art. We may soon start seeing masters rise in MMO design. Until then, we might need to satisfy ourselves with imitation and come to live with frequent failure.

Here’s a roadmap of an individual’s journey from interested spectator to master:

  1. Be aware of it. You play games and have opinions.
  2. Criticize existing works. You understand enough about how games work to form and express a valuable opinion about any game you play much.
  3. If you can start practicing the art—you start making things. You imitate stuff that you think has worked well with the deluded impression that you can improve it easily. Here you don’t really know much about how the art works, but you think you do because you’re too incompetent to understand your poor judgment. (Incompetent people vastly overestimate their abilities; see Think Twice by Michael J. Mauboussin among others.)
  4. You understand enough about the art to realize that you’re making crap, but you keep going. (See Ira Glass on storytelling.)
  5. Through understanding and using various techniques, you become an expert. You know many things and make complicated systems to exhibit this knowledge. (See Zed Shaw.)
  6. You become a master. Your understanding becomes so ingrained into who you are that you basically have no technique. You intuitively do whatever is necessary to accomplish your goal in the simplest, most efficient fashion.

The MMO space has collectively not moved past step 3. It appears very few individuals have touched 4 and 5.

Why?

  • MMOs are so big and complex that sizable teams are required to design them. These teams are pulled down by the majority of designers, the designers who don’t have much experience due to the relative youth of the industry and wouldn’t be capable of great success even if they had more experience.
  • MMOs are difficult games to design. Most of the problems you’ll face while designing an MMO have no simple answer.
  • No one can hold an MMO’s entire design in their head. There are so many moving parts, so many rules, so many little details. Even a vague notion of the layout of the design takes quite some time to understand. So perhaps the complexity forces the institutional learning process to a crawl.
  • The institution is closed. There’s not a lot of information publicly available that interested parties can consume in order to become initiated in the dark arts of game design. The institution wants to keep its secrets as they are, safely stashed away where no one but the chosen few can profit from them. We’ve started to see this falter, but it’s a slow process.
  • The social side of MMO design is less well-understood than the mechanical side. And we so often see games fail in the mechanics—the side they do understand. The interaction of the social and mechanical is not apparent or understood by enough designers, either.
  • The industry is young. It takes approximately ten years to become a master of an art. The MMO industry is not much more than 10 years old. Perhaps some of the old text MUD guys have had the time to become masters, but have they been practicing design enough to get there?

Where’s the change going to come from? It’s hard to get excited and make things when the business model is broken and the games are too damned big to make well without an institution behind you. Eventually, masters will rise, the floodgates of communication will come open, and game design will advance exponentially. Until then, we wait and eat the gruel we’re given—some of us will be satisfied, while some, like me, will be waiting eagerly.

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.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Why is World of Warcraft Easy?

World of Warcraft’s vaunted dungeon-finder has left some players surprised at how often they can successfully run pick-up groups through dungeons. Perhaps the average player isn’t as awful at the PvE game as everyone seems to think?

Or maybe themepark MMOs’ PvE don’t have that much skill involved. Maybe a few awful experiences have been entirely blown out of proportion into a general feeling that WoW players are unskilled dolts who can’t tie their own in-game shoes. Now that people are exposed to PUGing much more often, the outliers can’t muscle the thousands of successful runs out of people’s memories as easily.

I wager that the average skill of a WoW player is indeed low, but the required level of skill to run even end-game group content in the game is also quite low. Being a passable player is more about not actively being an idiot—it’s not so much about excelling.

With this dungeon-finder discussion pinging around the MMO blogverse, I see a great opportunity to seriously talk about skill in themepark MMOs, especially WoW: what skill is, how we measure it, and why we should care about it.

What is Skill?

Elements of skill:

  • Motor skills. Your ability to control your character accurately.
  • Planning. Your ability to quickly put together plans of in-game actions that will accomplish some goal.
  • Knowledge. All the known details on which your plans are based. This can also consist of actual memorized plans.

These three do not all increase at the same rate. Generally a great player will be good at all three of them, but you’ll see players at varying stages of each as you play a game. Some people are great at learning about the elements of a game and coming up with effective plans, but lack the motor skill to execute those plans when time is of the essence. Some people are terrible at planning but can pull out of tight situations by being significantly faster to act than their opponent. Yet others know minute details about the game system but haven’t played enough to develop an on-the-fly planning ability nor the motor skills necessary to be a top-tier player.

Measuring Skill

The most intuitive definition of skill in an MMO is the effective difference between the chance of an experienced player accomplishing the same goals as a new player given the same initial conditions. As this difference approaches zero, the game has less skill.

This metric falls apart for games that are meant to be easy; we need to broaden that definition because we understand skill as more than simply being successful—it also can mean being most efficient. Skill’s effect on a game can be determined by finding the difference in rewards between a complete beginner, the average player, and an expert.

Player skill in an MMO can only be measured in the effectiveness of that player’s manipulation of her characters in the game world. To measure effectiveness, we must find some game system that provides a meterstick against which we can judge successful play. Perhaps the approval of the player’s friends could be such a meterstick, but that is very hard to quantify and, like any scenario where you rely on the whims of others, is subject to instant and irrational change. The simplest way to measure character success is to measure rewards received. This works on the assumption that the game will reward the player more for playing well—notice that it says nothing about the amount of rewards for playing poorly, this metric is about the difference between the reward for success in a given scenario and the reward for failure.

Perhaps we’re chasing our tail here, though, because I was trying to define success and now I’m saying that we need to measure reward differences between success and failure. I don’t have to define success here: games provide basic units of success for their players through their goal generation systems. Goal generation systems are how games tell the player what to do. Completing the goals  as given by the game is a basic indication of success. Themepark MMOs generate goals for players by giving them quests (or tasks or achievements) and rewarding the player for quest completion. This does not mean that players cannot generate their own goals—such goal generation would be intrinsic (sourced at the player) whereas here we’re talking about the extrinsic (sourced at the game).  

All mechanics-related rewards in MMOs result in the successful character growing. Quests give characters experience—the most obvious form of growth—but also grant money and items with which to progress the character’s gear. Even unlocking new quests is a reward that leads to more rewards that can cause character growth.

Character power can also be seen as a function of skill. A player’s skill in MMOs dictates the speed of her character’s growth. A player’s skill in MMOs is directly related to her ability to grow a character as quickly as possible. This includes knowledge of what quests are where and the best ways to complete those quests as to maximize growth. Maximizing growth is equivalent, then, to maximizing reward. Skilled players maximize rewards.

Notice that skilled players grow faster; they don’t necessarily reach parts of the game that an average player cannot. Over time, their rewards will be the same, even though the expert knows significantly more about the game and is much better at planning and executing those plans.

In WoW, Success is a Matter of Time

What’s the difference between an average player and a WoW expert, then? It’s a matter of time. Both players can reach max level. Both players can get through dungeons without much trouble, though the expert will probably be a bit more frustrated as she attempts to lead her group of less-skilled players. Even the hardest dungeons can be overcome by an average player. It will simply take them more time because they’ll need to have better equipment which takes them longer to gain than the skilled player.

Because characters in WoW advance from being played at all, not necessarily from being played skillfully, any achievement is only a matter of time. Character advancement is dominated by time-spent—skillful play only marginally decreases that time.

Sufficiency vs. Efficiency

Skill in games has traditionally been a measure of sufficiency. The player is supposed to beat his head against a part of a game until he gains sufficient skill to advance to the next part. Advancing means facing more difficult challenges—maybe these challenges require mastering new abilities, or maybe they simply are less forgiving and require more precision from the player.

You may never see most of the content in game based on skill sufficiency. You may simply lack the physical or mental capacity to advance beyond a certain point in the game.

As gaming has become more mainstream, big-money games have moved away from exclusionary sufficiency-based advancement. Now most players can make it through games easily. The skill challenges have moved to efficiency. How fast can you beat a level? Under what odd constraints can you beat this level? The content has opened up to more players and made more than a modicum of skill unnecessary to get the full experience.

Likewise, skill in WoW is a measure of efficiency, not sufficiency.

This means that more players can have more fun. In a game that relies on large population numbers, you want the sufficiency bar to be very low so that everyone can play together. If sufficiency is rare, then the community stratifies according to skill, which makes it seem much smaller. If everyone can do most of the content and some of that content relies on a grouping, the game is more fun for most players.

WoW is easy for a good reason—players shocked at the success of dungeon-finder PUGs are finally realizing this.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Perceived Randomness: A Guide to Chance in Games

(As a primer, I’d suggest checking out Psychochild’s post about “good” and “bad” randoms, as well as my previous post about the role of chance in RPGs. This article digs a bit deeper than those two and tries to arrive at general guidelines for when chance and randomness fit into game design well.)

dice-illusion Perceived randomness has nothing to do with true unpredictability. True randomness is completely opaque: a perfect random number generator would generate a sequence of numbers that, when taken as a whole, has no discernable pattern. Its results would be completely unpredictable. We approximate true randomness through rolling dice, and this approximation of randomness is satisfactory to our perceptions as long as the dice are “fair”. When you roll dice, though, the result is not truly random. You can do some extraordinarily complex math, if given enough time, and figure out what face of the die will face up when the die comes to rest based only upon the force exerted on the die by your hand when you throw it and the composition of the die. We accept the outcome of a die roll as being random because, in common perception in the time-frame of the die rolling, we are incapable of forming and executing a process that will allow us to presage the side that will face up when the die has come to a halt.

Perceived Randomness as the Result of Theory-absence

On the level of abstraction on which a human being operates throughout his daily life, nothing is random from an objective view. For any event we can trace causes and effects into and beyond the conceivable and perceivable past.

If we’re diligent and use all the tools at our disposal, we can reliably form useful theories about events (e.g. theories that can predict the outcome of events given inputs we can gather from our perceptions) . In the course of your life, you will rarely have the time to be so diligent—you do as little work possible to establish theories about the world that are as effective as possible in the context of your everyday life.

When you can’t investigate the causes of an event and you cannot conceive of what the causes might be (or you don’t have the time to conceive of causes), you perceive the event as being random. We usually ascribe meaning to events that we perceive of as random because we do not like to feel as if we’re at the mercy of cast dice—it does not sit well with our teleological sensibilities. From this fact all superstition has grown. The seemingly insurmountable role of chance in life can also lead to hopelessness if taken too seriously. If all events rely on an external factor over which we have no effect (chance, in this case), why should we bother trying to effect certain outcomes with our actions? If some talentless hack can stumble into riches while I slave for my entire life for barely any money and recognition, why should I bother working so hard?

Perceived Randomness as Uncertainty

We know with varying levels of certainty how specific parts of the world work. If we don’t know well-enough how something works, we will perceive the outcome of that something as random.

If I’m certain that an outcome will result from some event, that outcome cannot be random with respect to that event in my perception. I know what is going to happen—the pattern is determined so the result is clear.

If I have no information about how what outcomes will result from some event (e.g. I am completely uncertain as to the outcome of the event), the outcome of the event is indistinguishable from a the event randomly determining an outcome.

If I have some moderate degree of certainty about the outcomes of an event, I still can perceive the event to be random, but with well-defined outcomes of limited variety.

This is a restatement of perceived randomness as theory-absence, but in simpler terms.

Gauging Perceived Randomness

Four elements that lead us towards perceiving an event or outcome as practically random:

  • How much agency do we have in determining outcomes? If I have no perceivable say in the outcome, it might as well be determined by chance.
  • What do we know about the process, abstractly? If I don’t understand how certain outcomes result from certain situations, those outcomes might as well be determined by chance.
  • How much information do we have about this particular execution of the process? Even if I understand the process, if I cannot perceive details about this specific execution of the process, I still have no hope of making a prediction, so the outcome might as well be determined by chance.
  • How remote in time and space is the outcome? The further away, the more uncertain, the more “random” the result will seem to us. As subevents resolve, the likelihood of the main event resolving in a certain way will become more and more easily perceptible and seem less random.

We can use these four elements to decide what parts of a game are best suited towards being procedurally or randomly determined.

  • If the player has no say in some event’s resolution or introduction, that event is well-suited towards having elements of randomness.
    • In Europa Universalis 3 there are some relatively fine-grained events that can happen within your kingdom that the player would have no way to cause or prevent, these events are introduced randomly as the game progresses.
  • If the player has no way of gaining knowledge about how a specific event actually happens, it makes sense to allow some randomness in how that event unfolds.
    • The player has no way of knowing how each magical item in Diablo II was made, so the player isn’t shocked when there are a wide variety of effects in a wide variety of magnitudes that are applied seemingly at random to items.
    • In Civilization games, the actual tactics of individual units in combat are entirely skipped over, so it makes sense for there to be randomness in the resolution of combat.
  • If the specifics about some particular event’s occurrence cannot be reliably shown to and understood by the player, randomness can play a role in deciding the result of that action.
    • Dungeons and Dragons’ combat resolution engine generally does not care about how a sword is swung under relatively normal conditions. To represent the minor variations of the PC’s swinging motion and the opponent’s defensive maneuver, it makes sense to use randomness.
    • Most RPG combat systems don’t make you worry about how exactly a spell is cast or a sword is swung. So we see a bit of randomness in the results of such actions.
  • What happens very far away, very long ago, or very far into the future does not need to be resolved with the same level of detail as what the player is currently doing. Some randomness can reasonably be used to stand for that detail.
    • In a TBS game like Civilization, a war between two far-off nations who are beneath fog-of-war for the player can be simulated more easily through a more liberal use of randomness. No need to move units individually when the player can’t see, for example.
    • In AI War, the AI’s production and resource gathering operations occur in another galaxy that is inaccessible to the player. The game doesn’t actually simulate this universe’s specific resources and the construction of ships and structures as the game shows the player’s resource gathering and construction. AI War warps AI ships into the player’s galaxy based on some heuristics and some randomness.