The F-Word

I was reading Stabs’ post about treasure hunting in Diablo 3, how the typical gold farmer strategies won’t work and so on, when I see Nils in the comments say:

While reading this something inside me cries out: “Why don’t you just try to have fun??”

You seem determined to optimize the fun out of it.

The first question that popped into my mind was “What if you find optimizing fun?” And Stabs replies:

@Nils Ah we’re getting back to the question, what is fun? All I can say is, for myself, I’m hyped that I’ll be able to play D3 for money, it was a game I’d have played heavily anyway, I’ve always loved theorycraft and numbercrunching, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane D2 mechanics and I believe I’ll have an utter blast doing this.

I can’t really defend optimisation to someone who considers it not fun. I do suspect that you’re swimming against the tide.

If you listen to the PC Gamer podcast I linked you’ll hear them argue very persuasively that D3 is a game where everyone is a gold farmer but then go on to talk about how much fun it is to play. They’re not mutually exclusive.

I think the only fun I’ll intentionally sacrifice for optimisation is alting. I usually mess around with lots of different classes and builds when I get a new game. With this game I’ll be rushing to the end.

I have heard the phrase “optimize the fun out of it” from Nils and Tobold and others, and it was not until Stabs’ unapologetic response that I realized how asinine the phrase is to begin with. Optimization is fun. I am not going to hedge that with “can” or “to some people” because you have to fight stupid declarative statements with Objective (Self-) Truth. If you find optimization fun, then it is. Period. If you don’t like it tomorrow, then it is not fun, until such time that you change your mind again. If someone finds something different fun, they are wrong. Unless you agree with them. Is that not the implied premise in these fun discussions? Are we not justifying our favorite colors (red), flavors (peanut butter), or meals (taco salad)? I hate steak. Do I ask why people ruin their dinners with slabs of tough, bloody cow muscle? Of course not. And not just because I prefer taking a perfectly healthy salad and smothering it in greasy ground meat, nacho chips and sour cream.

I do not judge because I do not live in a solipsistic bizzaro-world where Fun is some objective Form straight out of the works of Plato. Have you read Gevlon at Greedy Goblin lately? He “refuses to nihilistically believe” that two people playing WoW can have different goals, motivations, desires. In a Battleground, he rages at the people fighting on the bridge instead of guarding a flag like he is; they are M&S (moron & slacker) for not winning in the most efficient manner. I was not aware winning was more important than having fun, but he covers that too by saying winning is the only way to have fun in the first place. I am not quite sure how he handles games like The Sims or Second Life – possibly you are M&S for not playing winnable games to begin with – but Nils, Gevlon, and Stabs all played WoW at some point in time so obviously someone was doing it wrong. Right?

The Dark Heart of the Matter

The underlying problem with “what is fun?” posts is not just because fun is a subjective thing. The underlying problem is that none of us can really be sure what fun even is to ourselves. That is, strictly speaking, an absurd statement. But the psychological fact of the matter is that human beings are damn near incapable of accurately predicting how they will feel in the future. Feel free to read along at home the article entitled The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. A choice excerpt:

Much of the work of Kahneman, Loewenstein, Gilbert and Wilson takes its cue from the concept of adaptation, a term psychologists have used since at least the 1950’s to refer to how we acclimate to changing circumstances. George Loewenstein sums up this human capacity as follows: ”Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.” In this respect, the tendency toward adaptation suggests why the impact bias is so pervasive. As Tim Wilson says: ”We don’t realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.”

It is easy to overlook something new and crucial in what Wilson is saying. Not that we invariably lose interest in bright and shiny things over time — this is a long-known trait — but that we’re generally unable to recognize that we adapt to new circumstances and therefore fail to incorporate this fact into our decisions. So, yes, we will adapt to the BMW and the plasma TV, since we adapt to virtually everything. But Wilson and Gilbert and others have shown that we seem unable to predict that we will adapt. Thus, when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move on to the next thing or event and almost certainly make another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.

You can probably draw a line from that concept and connect it with Cognitive Dissonance, and especially the sub-set of that: Effort Justification. This is extremely relevant in MMO discussions about what is “fun” and what is not for what shall be readily apparent reasons:

Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal.

Oestrus from The Story of O and Nils from Nils’ MMO Blog both wrote about this dissonance in their (hopefully cynical) “What is fun?” articles. Both Nils and Oestreus argue (in effect) that fun is the resolving of the dissonance that is doing a long, arduous grind for an ultimately meaningless reward. After completion, you convince yourself  that the journey was meaningful, and magically you retroactively have fun. Your brain does this because it refuses to believe that you could be so dumb to have spent all that time voluntarily being miserable, ergo the reward must have been worth it. And the sad thing is, this works. Nils even has a series of posts talking about how “great games enslave you,” not through riveting substance or fun activities (which is really salt that ruins the larger shit soup), but by pulling a Lucy and moving the football before you get to it, every goddamn time. I may be paraphrasing here.

In their defense, I do believe they are talking about great MMOs specifically, where “great” is defined as ones that keep you pressing levers for food pellets as long as humanly possible. It is the same definition of greatness, incidentally, that makes America’s Funniest Home Videos one of the greatest television shows of all time. Better than, you know, The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, etc etc.

On the Other Hand…

The good news is that your inevitable, happiness-based existential crisis may be unnecessary, and here is why: Think about your favorite games of all time. Now… were any of them MMOs? I am guessing no. For me, my favorite games are Xenogears, Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, and so on. I quit playing WoW a few weeks ago after four years, and I have 7000+ hours logged; not only is that more time than I spent playing those listed games combined, it is probably more time than I played in the entire SNES era. And yet WoW will never occupy a place on my favorite game list. No doubt I had some memorial experiences, but the vast majority of those experiences were social ones that could have existed just as easily elsewhere, like in EQ, Rift, LotRO, Warhammer, etc etc. There was nothing specifically exclusive to WoW to merit associating the social triumphs with the quality of the game itself. Moreover, the very principals Nils attributes to “great” MMOs sours my memory of the WoW-specific moments of genius – Sunstrider Isle was an absolutely amazing starting experience, but it and other experiences are diluted by ~6920 hours of merely Okay gameplay. Just like a movie or book or blog post (like this one) can overstay its welcome via lack of editing and meandering structure, a game too can ruin itself by unnecessary extension.

It is for this reason that I believe the future of the MMO market is heading towards a more single-player Show & Tell experience. This was not possible when the payment model was pretty exclusively subscription-based, but now the stage is set through the legitimization of alternative payment models (F2P, but also Diablo 3 RMAH, etc) to allow developers to go back to crafting experiences with defined beginnings, middles, and ends. The end of the story is not always the end of gameplay, of course, which is where the Show & Tell comes into play. MMOs will be less about Lucy taking away the football at the last moment, and more about showing her how far it can fly.

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Posted on August 27, 2011, in MMO, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Actually, I agree with you and Stabs. In a way. If optimization is fun, go for it. (Sometimes it really is not, for example when people cast 1000s of fireballs to incrase the skill ..)

    With Stab’s I was just a bit .. well, he seemed to talk so much about the metagame and didn’t even spend a thought on the .. game: “You are a babarian, you explore a dungeon.” This doesn’t seem to be true for Stabs anymore. I understand it if somebody explores the meta game after he played the game. I certainly did so in WoW. But to start the meta game already before the game has been released ?

    • But to start the meta game already before the game has been released?

      If you think about it, Diablo 3 isn’t really going to be a new game per se. You still click everywhere, you still dungeon delve, you still will be slaughtering thousands of enemies at a time, skills are still activated the same way, and so on. Only the minor details have really changed. Other RPGs like Final Fantasy (etc) have different battle systems each game; Diablo really does not. And for the type of game it is (less about category and more about the feel), I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  2. Thank you very much for the support and for writing such an interesting response.

    We’ve cross-posted with each other as I’ve just written about Nils’ comment too, then I discovered Nils had commented on his comment which led me here.

    Even so it’s an interesting discussion, hopefully we’ll provoke a response from Nils arguing the case against optimisation.