Thursday, October 28, 2010

The End justifies the (e)Peens

If you asked a room of 50 people what the meaning or purpose of life is, the only answer you'd get more than once is "I don't know".   We didn't get a manual for our existence, we don’t definitively know what we’re supposed to do or if we’re doing the right things.  There is no clear definition of how to Win at life.  Most of us settle into what makes us happy and consider ourselves minor victors, but even still we’ll never reach that point where someone tells us: “You’ve won” (though we will all hear Game Over).

I believe this ambiguous purpose of existence –and I do mean ambiguous, not nonexistent- is one of the main drivers behind our attraction to games.  Games have clearly defined victory conditions, you know exactly what you have to do and how you can win.  They are –by mutual consent between developer and player- viewed as entire universes, separate realities, but the main difference isn’t the type of reality or its content.  The greatest difference is that you can achieve the ultimate victory within that reality, and you know how.  This is perhaps the true escapism we seek, not hacking trolls with a sword or shooting terrorists or racing our dream car, its being able to definitively achieve ultimate victory and completion of an entire existence.

And that is the exact problem with MMORPG’s.  Millions of people playing WoW for half a decade, and how many have Won? None.  The game doesn’t end.  Everything can be repeated, nothing changes as a result of your actions, and there is no end in sight. We opine that the problem with Endgame comes from the mathematical impossibility of Developers creating content as faster as players can consume it, but what if it’s the opposite?  What if the very promise of future content and further challenges is what cheapens the present content?  The excitement and accomplishment you felt when you killed the Lich King may have been 99% unencumbered, but at least a small part of you knew, this is not the end, I have not won forever, this is not how the world ends.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Howzabout: Voluntary Difficulty Tradeoffs

In the wake of an underwhelming Blizzcon, I wanted to throw out an idea for criticism and analysis.

One of the main sources of arguments in the MMO blogosphere seems to be the differences between traditional old-school MMO values and modern WoW-espoused MMO values.  MMO traditionalists put immersion before ease, and quality socialization before mass market appeal.  Modern MMOers prefer to optimize their enjoyment -which is derived primarily out of advancement- but also respect the fact that MMO's are a business first, and thus are more likely to make concessions to immersion to support a broader audience.  Neither the Traditionalists nor the Modernists are small enough to ignore -particularly because the blogosphere contains more vocal Traditionalists- so its a tough proposition for devs to fulfill the needs of both without failing on two fronts.

One form of compromise could be found in a system of Voluntary Difficulty Tradeoffs.  During character creation (or possibly in game) a player would be able to customize the gameplay experience to meet their needs for immersion and difficulty, and rewarding sacrifices appropriately.  The basic idea would be a two column menu, with sacrifices on the left side and benefits on the right.  Sacrifices would include things like:

-Semi Realistic Inventory: a sword doesn’t fill the same amount of space in a bag as a scroll does
-Realistic inventory: you can’t carry five swords, period.
-Movement affected by inventory: the more you carry, the slower you move
-Language differences (Dwarves can’t understand Humans, etc)
-No Insta-travel
-Vendors only buy items that they would realistically need or want
-Increased enemy AI (or at least randomly varied responses)
-Racial drawbacks:
 -Little types can’t carry much
 -Large types can’t move very fast
 -“Smart” types can’t learn physical skills as quickly
 -“Dumb” types can’t learn magic as quickly
-Generic “+Difficulty” for combat: Monsters have higher stats, know more skills, react smarter
 -And of course my favorite: Permadeath.

Each of these drawbacks would have an associated point value, so whichever combination you selected would allot you a total amount of points which you could then spend on Benefits such as:
 -Better loot drop %
 -Faster rate of advancement
 -Extra tradeskill slot
 -Access to Epic events, quest chains and locations
 -Faster movement
 -“Elite Flag” that serves no purpose other than to advertise that you’re a masochist

This allows players who still crave traditional “immersive” limitations on gameplay to scratch that itch and be rewarded for doing it old-school, while allowing modernists to play exactly as streamlined as they want.
This also plays into the idea of a difficulty slider, where a player can make combat more or less difficult at any time (outside of combat and dungeons), with an accompanying increase or decrease in rewards and experience.  Group difficulty would simply be the average difficulty rating of the entire party.

Disclaimer:  The bare bones outline for this idea has been sitting in my inbox since December 15, 2009, which means I don’t remember 100% if this is entirely my idea or is based on something someone else wrote.  If this looks familiar to you, please let me know so I can give credit where its due.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Riddle

Using the clues in this description try to figure out which game my friend is playing:

My friend Harvey is the type that only plays one game at a time, and the one he's playing now he plays almost as much as he can every day. Most people consider this game too easy, but others would argue that the very ease and simplicity of gameplay is why its so popular and has millions of players worldwide.  When he receives instructions for a task in the game, any superfluous details or context either confuses him or is ignored completely, thus he prefers only the most basic instructions so he doesn't waste time and can get on with the game.  These tasks usually involve doing a very basic action again and again, and even when he completes a task he is willing to take up the same type of task again and again and again just so he can maximize his rewards and minimize downtime.

Harvey doesn't mind PUGs, but he prefers to group with those he's more familiar with.  He judges people by oversimplified factors and doesn't even consider their intrinsic skill or experience.  He enjoys grouping but in the end he isn't doing it for anyone but himself, and is only willing to cooperate when its in his best interest.  If it comes down to it he will shout at even his best friend over a contested reward.

Harvey enjoys the simple combat of the game even if he isn't particularly good at it, primarily because the punishment for losing a battle is minimal.  He isn't interested in any tradeskills, and when he does make something it usually ends up being a worthless piece of crap that he has no personal use for and couldn't sell for much if anything.  Since he is reward driven he focuses primarily on the task that yields the fastest rate of reward.

Despite usually being happy with the state of his game, if he believes that there isn't enough new gameplay being introduced or he isn't being entertained enough, he feels entitled to whine about it to everyone and anyone willing (or unwilling) to listen. 

Think you know which game it is?  Here are some curveballs before the answer:

He pays nothing to play this game, and still expects constant entertainment.

There are no levels, but he does gain experience.

He hasn't killed a single thing in the game.

So what is the game?  Do you know?

It's Fetch.  Harvey is my one year old puppy.

The only thing I cheated on was the capitalization of Pugs.

Our games are really that basic, and our game habits are really that simple.  Why hasn't our genre evolved yet?