Category Archives: Philosophy
All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”
The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.
One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.
But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.
I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!
Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.
Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.
Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.
I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?
You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.
The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.
All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.
¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.
² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.
In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?
Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.
In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?
Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?
Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.
In a game with optional lockpicking mechanics, designers must include chests and doors and such that contain treasure to justify the investment of (usually) finite skill points in an otherwise non-combat skill. This reward cannot be too generous however, as it otherwise moves lockpicking from being an “interesting choice” into becoming the only reasonable option.
If a player got midway through a game only to discover a plot-specific item or one-of-a-kind upgrade was behind a door they could not open, the player would be understandably upset. At the same time, without such incentives the opportunity cost of taking Lockpicking over other skills is usually pretty high.
In games with Lockpicking or Hacking, I almost always pour points into training these skills because the “what’s in the boooooooox” feeling is too strong, despite my inevitable disappointment that it’s just some ammo and currency of negligible value. But what else could the designers really do? It all seems like an inevitable Lose-Lose scenario the very moment you introduce the choice; I feel bad for leaving unopened containers behind, and am disappointed with what they contain.
As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.
So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?
Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.
Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.
As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.
There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.
The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.
Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.
And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?
It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.
Ghostcrawler tweeted the sort of thing I’m sure sends “real” MMO players into howling fits:
“No,actually,there is not a wrong choice.Wether we(players) buy new items OR upgrade old ones should be our decision,not DEV’s.”
Giving players the ability to make choices with wrong answers doesn’t make players happy overall. (Source)
Choices having bad consequences is the best (only?) way to make a decision matter, as the argument goes. However, this quote got me thinking: do such players actually enjoy being able to make the wrong choice, or is it simply that the bad choice existing (which they did not pick) validates their good decision? Or put another way, who really likes making bad decisions?
I understand that the demonstration of skill necessitates there being wrong choices. Demonstrating skill, or improvement thereof, is fun. At the same time, the Mass Effect series (for example) was fun to play even though there weren’t any “wrong choices” (provided you weren’t specifically looking for X result).
There is only ever one correct answer to the questions of “which does the most DPS” or “what is the most efficient use of resources.” Ergo, is there actually any real decision to be made when one is correct and the other(s) not? I suppose the fun is supposed to be the result of figuring out which one is which, but that sort of clashes with the mockery and disdain frequently attributed to those who don’t look up the correct decision from the Wiki/EJ. Compare that to the question of “which transmog set is the best?”
I do not believe that there has to be a wrong choice in order for choices to be meaningful generally. We make identity choices every day – what type of person do I want to be, what do I believe in? – and I do not think that anyone would suggest that those choices are either irrelevant or have wrong answers (well… no one with any sort of self-reflection). And while I am willing to concede gameplay being under the (broad) umbrella of choice, e.g. one makes a wrong choice by pressing 11342 instead of 11324, I consider there to be a distinction between executing a rotation under pressure versus avoiding falling into a designer trap. One has its place as a legitimate test of skill, and the other is simply you winning via a few mouse clicks several months ago.
Out of the multitudes of derogatory, loaded phrases, “Path of Least Resistance” is perhaps the one I dislike the most (“welfare epics” is another top contender). The phrase, in a bit of cognitive Jujitsu, attempts to style strength as weakness. “Path of Least Resistance.” Is that not… efficiency? Optimization? Are we supposed to be seeking the path of most resistance? How is that different from simply Doing It Wrong?
The phrase and its implied meaning is more than contradictory though, it’s often hypocritical as well. At its base, it means expending the smallest amount of effort for the greatest gain. Ask those players who bemoan their peers taking the Path of Least Resistance how they feel about “Play to Win.” Is it “cheating” or unsportsmanlike to spam an uncounterable move over and over to ensure victory? Playing to Win is (usually) the Path of Least Resistance. Fair fights are more difficult, and thus more risky – something to be avoided if possible to make the wins easier and more assured.
Those using Path of Least Resistance as a negative attempt to levy moral failings upon players not even participating in the same game as them; the only game in which the Path of Least Resistance is a negative is the game inside the accuser’s own head. Efficiency and efficacy are, in fact, virtues. It is fine to critique game design that results in unintended or counter-intuitive behavior, such as RvR merry-go-rounds instead of gritty trench warfare. But the critique must always be of the rules, not the minds or motivations that master them.
Allow me to revise my previous post a bit. The fundamental question I was asking was:
“Is it a good use of designer resources to specifically construct one-time events (in MMOs)?”
The traditional sort of knee-jerk response would probably be “Yes.” My answer is No.
A one-time event is essentially the most extreme example of planned obsolescence in MMOs. If you get upset at the idea that nobody does Tier N content when Tier N+1 is released, then you should be grabbing pitchforks at the very mention of one-time events. Were you upset when ToC made Ulduar irrelevant? Were you sad when Cataclysm redesigned the entire leveling experience, including removing your favorite quests? Do you support attunements as a means to make all raids relevant through the duration of an expansion? Are you sad about how fast leveling has gotten in WoW, or how many dungeons are being “wasted?” If you answered Yes to any of those questions and yet still enjoy the idea of the AQ gate opening just the one time ever, then you have some serious cognitive dissonance going on.
A raid being rendered moot by the next patch’s 5m heroics is just another form of planned obsolescence; it is another form of one-time events, same as the leveling speed changing, dungeons becoming empty, and so on. The only difference is one of duration, e.g. months/years versus an hour on a Sunday afternoon.
There is, however, an important distinction to make here.
When ToC made Ulduar irrelevant, Ulduar still existed. In fact, you can still zone into Ulduar today and go have fun. Will it be the same experience as it was when it was the new hotness? Of course not – you can never cross the same river twice. The difficulty changed quite a bit following the months of its release, to say nothing of the changing abilities of players, the higher level cap, and so on. But fundamentally the place is still there and still capable of generating new memories. The planned obsolescence was social in nature, not structural. Blizzard did not simply remove the raid portal, or leave all the bosses dead. Few people wanted to do Ulduar after ToC was released because better gear was available elsewhere, they had gotten their fill of Ulduar content, they wanted to tackle new challenges, or whatever.
This brings me to a smaller point I was trying to make yesterday: social obsolescence happens naturally, automatically, and inevitably. If ToC was released with just sidegrades available, there still would have been fewer people raiding Ulduar; the exodus might not have been as abrupt, but it still would have occurred. Even in horizontal-progression games, you do not see an evenly distributed population. People generally crave novelty, and will mob whatever new content is introduced, leaving barren ghost towns in their wake. Nobody cares that you have got the Kingslayer title yesterday.
And so now we have arrived at my larger assertion: making events only occur once adds little to nothing to the experience.
Liore and Syl in the previous comments said that the AQ opening would have been less epic/less people would have showed up if it were repeatable. Based on what? Did those people know, for sure, that the gong would never be struck again? Would the significance of the first opening have been diminished in any real way if the event was available the very next year? Or weeks later? I have a hard time believing that could be the case, because Firsts are always special. Neil Armstrong is the first human to step on the moon; his accomplishment is in no way diminished by the fact eleven other dudes have also stepped on the moon. Have you heard of Eugene Cernan or Harrison Schmitt? Those are the last two people to have rung the gong on the moon, so to speak, but no one really cares. Neil still is/was the man.
Ultimately, to me, it comes down to a question of where best to utilize limited designer resources. When new raids and dungeons are released, there is always a special moment attached to it. A camaraderie that exists as thousands and thousands of players try something for the first time, race to the top, and otherwise share an experience. Undoubtedly that is the same goal of one-time events, to evoke those same feelings and perhaps pretend that this is a game world that is always changing (at 12:00 PM Pacific Time/19:00 GMT this Sunday only). The difference is that with the latter, the content is thereafter removed, generating no new experiences, no new memories, and no lasting history beyond the recollections of an ever-dwindling veteran playerbase.
I want game worlds to get bigger by having more things in them, not less, and not temporary things. Designers should stick with making the tools and toys; let the players bring the dynamic themselves.
And if you need something to only happen once to enjoy it the most, 1) I feel bad for you, and 2) the first time only happens once already. Enjoy the feeling as it lasts… don’t just take the ball and go home.
Everyone knows the importance of first impressions, and how they can color every experience thereafter. The situation is a bit more dire when it comes to blogging (or at least it feels that way), because once we nail something down with words, it not only helps cement the first impressions in our own minds, but it also becomes baggage that gets checked any time we say something contrary in the future. You would not see Wolfshead or Syncaine posting about how much they enjoy Mists of Pandaria, for example, even if they were genuinely impressed; so much of their identity and “e-cred” is wrapped up in historical posts about hating WoW that everyone would assume they are trolling at best, or hypocritical at worse.
I was thinking about all that this weekend, as I mused over the sort of feedback and counter-arguments I have been getting about my Guild Wars 2 posts. Do they have a point? Am I letting my first impressions and foreknowledge about the “endgame” color my moment-to-moment enjoyment? Am I not talking about the fun/interesting things because I subconsciously fear “contradicting” myself?
To answer these questions, I decided to try an experiment I am calling: On The Other Hand. The idea is to carve out a space between playing Devil’s Advocate and cleaning the slate as much as possible for a second impression. The experiment does not involve me being relentlessly positive or pretending to like things I do not – it merely gives me mental room to acknowledge that I may have been unfair in the past.
I’m wrapping this all up in a fancy “experiment” instead of just coming out and admitting possible wrongs, because… well, it is easier. Hey, I never pretended to be a humble guy.
In any case, the first night of the experiment actually happened on Saturday when I strolled into a zone I had never been to before; took some screenshots, jotted down some notes. Since I spent all day Sunday playing FTL (ominous foreshadowing?) I am going to try and run the experiment for another day or two. The end result may be in one big post, or several smaller ones. I especially want to try to get back into a third dungeon.
So look forward to that, or dread it, as is your predilection.