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Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

Unfair Impressions: TSW, Days 3-4+

Day 3

As mentioned previously, my spirits were up quite a bit from the doldrums of the first two days in The Secret World. Knowing that it was expected that one unlock all the “inner wheel” abilities on the Ability Wheel lowered the existential pressure of permanent choices. And as soon as I confirmed with a commenter that, yes, TSW did have an in-game Search feature for abilities, the mental wheels started turning quite pleasurably. I finished a series of entirely pleasant and non-frustrating quests, got 7 more AP, and then starting picking things that maximized my synergy.

Quests like this were refreshingly novel as well.

“Quests” like this were refreshingly novel.

My present loadout is something like follows:

  • Delicate Strike – single-target blade builder (+10% Penetration chance)
  • Blade Torrent – AoE blade builder (+Affliction DoT)
  • Balanced Blade – AoE blade finisher
  • The Business – single-target pistol builder (+Weakened Healing)
  • Shootout – channel pistol finisher
  • Above the Law – Targeted AoE cooldown damage field

The other relevant passives meanwhile are:

  • Lick Your Wounds – Stacking HoT when you deal damage
  • Immortal Spirit – HoT when you Penetrate
  • Gnosis – Hitting Weakened targets = 33% chance for more damage
  • Dark Potency – Hitting Afflicted targets = Stacking +Penetration buff

You don’t really have to know anything about TSW to sort of see what’s going on there. Blade Torrent hits everything and then gives them an Affliction DoT, which triggers a +Penetration buff for me, which increases my chance to trigger a self-HoT. Meanwhile, I get a baseline HoT for just hitting things. The Business deals damage, puts up a Weakened debuff, which makes further hits deal extra damage 33% of the time.

Actually, the synergy isn’t really all that there. The two weapons themselves don’t really have much synergy with one another. There doesn’t seem to much of a point to not simply spam Blade Torrent, even when I have enough combo points to use my AoE finisher. Using the single-target pistol attack to Weaken and deal bonus damage sounds cool, but I’m mostly facing small groups of weak enemies right now. Even I were facing a single target, the Aff –> +Pen +HoT deal sounds a whole lot better, especially since the Weaken ability I have is essentially the Mortal Strike debuff.

But like I said, the wheels are turning. “Hmm… well, the Shotgun features a baseline ability to hit things in a cone, and you can make that give everyone a Weakened debuff that results in 30% less damage done. That’s certainly better than a single-target attack that gives -Healing on mobs.” Then you run across a higher-tier Shotgun passive called 12 Gouge that causes enemies you Penetrate to become Weakened (-30% damage) that starts making your mind melt in interesting ways.

  1. Oh, so if I spam Blade Torrent, everything around me gets an Affliction DoT, I get a +Penetration buff, then if I Penetrate anything from spamming the attack they get Weakened (-30% damage), which then can trigger the 33% chance for them to take extra damage.
  2. And I get two different HoTs.
  3. What does a 12 Gouge katana even mean?

No doubt there are better, more efficient combos in the game that exploit synergies I don’t even know are possible; I have been limiting my scope to mostly inner-circle abilities, which the exception of 12 Gouge. But, again, this whole exercise has significantly increased my respect for the game… at least in this area.

I mean, this part is, as the kids say, “totes fun.” However, actual combat so far amounts to me spamming one attack over and over. Which is not all that different than spamming Wrath a thousand times in WoW, of course; I’m not even out of the equivalent of Goldshire yet. Nevertheless, I remain wary as to how engaging the combat is really going to be once I “finish” the ability-planning part. And I wonder how much of the fighting game design was sacrificed at the altar of ability synergy complexity.

WoW combat is fun, to me, even when I’m killing entirely trivial mobs. It’s visceral in a way I can’t entire describe. TSW combat is not… also in a way I can’t entirely describe.

Day 4

It is funny and sad, all at once, how much difference a little gear makes in an MMO.

After the fun of planning build synergies the other day, I was facing the reality of what amounted to a number of long slogs against single enemies with 30+ seconds TTK (time to kill). Worse, I was getting little-to-no sense of when/how you would ever use the Dodge button or circle-strafing in TSW. Sure, avoid the bad stuff/targeting reticule on the ground. But beyond that? All the enemies reminded me of the unquestionably lame zombies of Orr in GW2, with their 300% movement speed and amazing clipping powers.

Know what's fun? Not fighting these mobs.

Know what’s fun? Not fighting these mobs.

I died a few times, as you can imagine, against single mobs. Specifically, I died to enemies who never seemed to target the ground with anything – they simply beat my face in, old-school. The worst part of new games is when you fail for reasons you don’t quite understand, or are unable to prevent. I knew I was probably dead within the first 5 seconds of the combat encounter, but it took another 15 before I officially gave up the ghost. I could have probably ran away, but I wanted to know specifically why I was dying, and to get a sense of what I could do to prevent/slow down the process. The auto-HoTs weren’t enough, for sure. But it seemed like only the Assault Rifle and Blood Magic “weapons” allowed for self-healing spamming. Which meant I was going to end up with seven of nine (har har) weapon skills halfway filled, likely putting me signifigantly behind the power curve that would have existed had I stuck with the same two weapons.

Then I got gear. Partly from the “subscriber rewards” I received for having purchased the game for $15 via Steam, and the rest from the AH. Mobs are just falling over now. The stronger ones still take a while, and I still derive no visceral thrill from killing them, but my HoTs essentially keep me above 80% HP at all times.

You'd be surprised how big a difference it makes. Or maybe you wouldn't.

You’d be surprised how big a difference it makes. Or maybe you wouldn’t.

Maybe there will be fun combat later on, but it’s getting increasingly difficult IMO to use that as a proper excuse. With a few weapon exceptions, GW2 was fun right out of the gate, for example. And it all seems extra silly when hypothetical games like SavageSun somehow manage to feel fun to play even when you only have two abilities.

In any case, this will likely be my last Unfair Impressions for TSW. I don’t plan to stop playing necessarily, but I think these few articles have adequately served their purpose – namely, presenting my impressions of a game that I had no particular desire to play in the first place. While the chances that I play TSW in the long-term is less than zero, my opinion of it is certainly better than what it was when I started it. If I play it more, it will be in the context to experience the narrative and quests.

Which sounds great until you realize I said the same thing about SWTOR.

The Siren Call of Dynamism

Looks like we have the next Jesus game:

EverQuest Next Could Fix Everything Wrong With MMORPGs

I’ve played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I’ve spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That’s a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.

I probably should have stopped reading that Kotaku article right there, but I’m a masochist at heart.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things I’m reading about EverQuest Next sound interesting. Voxel-based things, somehow without looking like Cube World. And… err… yeah. Classless/multi-class systems like The Secret World/FF11. Stylized graphics like WoW, Firefall, Wildstar. Red zones on the ground that you shouldn’t stand in, like most every game these days. Jumping and “parkour” (which means what, exactly, in this context?) like in Guild Wars 2. Reducing abilities down to eight, like Guild Wars 2 again. Dynamic events and “calls to arms” like Guild Wars 2 and Firefall and Warhammer. Hell, considering they brought over Jeremy Soule to do their soundtrack, they probably should have just called the game EverGuildQuestWars2Next.

Then there are the hype red flags. A StoryBricks-based AI that wanders around and sets up camp organically? Neat. But then I started reading this interview:

So, to better understand the Rallying Calls, I wasn’t clear on some things with David Georgeson’s example: say you’ve built a big city, and built these stone walls around it, and now an army has come for a siege. Is that something that happens over a couple hours, or a week?

McPherson: That army siege lasts until the players on the server have completed that stage.

[…]

With the “emergent AI,” though, how can you maintain something indefinitely? If the army comes to attack, and is defeated outright in an hour or the players just ignore it, what then? Do you keep spawning enemies?

Butler: Until the things that spawn them are destroyed.

[…]

So, if orcs are released into the world and wander around looking for areas they like, they’re not coming from some point and spreading outward, they’re spawning from camps they set up?

McPherson: Right, perfect example. So in phase four of this Rallying Call, four large orc warband camps spawn in the hills. Those camps are literally swarming with orcs.

Butler: And they’re unassailable.

McPherson: Until you meet the requirements to move on to that next area and eliminate those. Then you and your army push past them and assault them in their homeland.

Butler: You try to fireball the palisade walls in the orc camps, but the fireball doesn’t take down the walls because you need catapults, because that’s what unlocks the next phase and gives you the ability to assault the camps directly.

[…]

What happens if players don’t do any of this?

Butler: It’s simple, it doesn’t advance. So just like a chapter of a book, right? You’ve got your personal storyline, you’re playing through the game. Your personal contribution and the story that goes with it goes on at whatever pace you choose to pursue. The server has a storyline as well, expressed with these Rallying Calls. If players choose not to pursue them, the clock just doesn’t advance.

Oh. So… these things are completely indistinguishable from anything we’ve seen a thousand times before, all the way back to simple phased quests in WoW? Will there be a little “Catapults put into position: 0/2″ blurb in the middle-right side of the screen too? How dynamic and revolutionary.

Getting back to the Kotaku article, the author presents his final conclusion like this:

Addressing the Real Problem

Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.

That’s the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they’re still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we’re playing the same thing over and over again.

Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you’ve got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.

EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.

Now, he says he has been playing MMOs for the last 15 years, but I get the distinct impression that he hasn’t. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based. An ever-changing world is irrelevant in comparison to a completely static world populated with other people you like hanging around with. People are still playing the original EverQuest for god’s sake! This is besides the fact that there isn’t a “living, breathing, ever-changing world” in EQN or anywhere.

Even if EQN or some future game actually managed to pull it off, would you even want to play it? As I pointed out back in 2011, player impact on the game world is considerably less interesting than many people make it out to be. Imagine if xxArthasDKlolxx killed an NPC and now you can never interact with said NPC again. Is that what you want? Feature sets that include “destructible environments” always have to be followed up by explanations about how it isn’t permanent, lest new players be introduced to a cratered wasteland made by bored griefers.

EVE has been in the news lately with its dynamic player impact, but all of that has been confined to player social structures, and not the game-world itself; star systems have changed ownership, but it’s not as though there are less NPCs or ice rocks in the universe.

That’s how you do dynamic content: with people. Whether orcs spawn in the valley or on the hill is extremely trivial, considering you still have to remove them in pretty much the same manner as you did 15 resets ago. GW2 has committed itself to two-week content obsoletion cycles, which I guess is one way to avoid the tedium of redoing the same thing over and over. Then again, even if the set pieces change, you are still interacting with the world the same way, more or less, as you did at level 1. “Kill this, click that, jump here, fill up your meter, claim rewards.”

I’m not saying that dynamic/changing content can’t be fun, I’m saying that dynamic content is not some silver bullet for boredom. Things might change randomly or dynamically, but your understanding of their mechanics only increases over time. Nils has talked about this years ago, as I have, but I think Klepsacovic summed it up more poetically here:

That last part is the key: anything I could think of.  Early on I did not imagine what else I could want to do in this world.  I’d done only a tiny fraction of what I could.  This had two effects.  One was that I had not run into a limit yet.  The other was that I could not imagine a limit.  I did not imagine that the sky ended, that the quests ended, that the raids could all be done.  These were all true, but since I did not know them and did not even imagine them, they were irrelevant.  I was running the infinite distance of a circular path.

Since then I’ve learned and my behavior has changed.  I do not run in circular paths.  I run out, find the edge, map it out, and then fill it in.  This means that very early on my mind has already filled the size of the world, so that all that can happen after are details, with nothing big to be revealed.  In my mind it looks like two strategies for filling in a circle.  Both start at the center.  One draws a line out to the edge and now the radius is known.  It then spirals inward, knowing exactly where it is headed.  The other starts the spiral at the center.  It will cover the same area, but it will do so not knowing where the edge is, what the limits are, until it reaches them.

Cynicism is easy, but it’s also an appropriate response to any claim that non-player dynamism is going to solve anything. You can still get bored playing a procedurally-generated game; if that fact is not the simplest indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of Mike Fahey’s Kotaku argument, I don’t know what is. People are the only thing that will continue making a game interesting once you have mapped out the circle. The player-built structures and other such things might bridge the gap, but it won’t be enough if you aren’t making friends and setting down roots. Given how EQN is F2P though… well, I’m not holding out hope for a particularly stable, long-term community.

All that said, EQN is now on my radar. If it’s fun, I’ll play it. Hell, I’m kinda interested in the incredibly devious EQN Landmark “game” where you’ll likely pay SOE for the privilege of building content for them (Landmark is F2P, but that just means the costs are hidden). Imagine building your own house – as in, your IRL house – and placing that in game… or selling it to other people. I have never used Portal 2’s puzzle-making feature, but I am always a fan of developers giving players tools to build in-game stuff. Crowd-sourcing is great, but even better is the ability to sorta build your own game design portfolio.

Would I get bored with EQN eventually? No doubt. But I don’t see that inevitability as a negative – it is simply the natural consequence of learning and experiencing things. An MMO doesn’t have to last forever to be worth playing. People and relationships don’t last forever either, but I don’t see anyone saying those are a waste of time.

Unintended Main

I hit 90 last week on the paladin.

The funny thing is that the reputation concession to alts (i.e. 100% rep gains if you buy a token at Revered) has resulted in some strange behavior on my part. I still don’t like the paladin very much; I chose it as my first 90 because of other considerations, like how it was my only toon with max Archeology (mainly the BoA weapons). Combat as Retribution still feels clunky, especially if I miss with Crusader Strike. Exorcism, Judgment, Crusader Strike, then either Inquisition or Templar’s Verdict, then… wait for procs. Having a 6-second window to Flash of Light after a mob death is infinitely worse than a warrior’s intuitive and satisfying Impending Victory.

Regardless, since I am 90 though, I find myself doing all the dailies that I can. Not just because they are dailies, e.g. the sense that I fall further behind in my future, hypothetical endeavors, but also because I am already near Honored (or well into Honored) with these factions. It feels a waste to start leveling someone else up before getting the 100% rep boost. And thus I continue playing a class I no longer love, earning rewards I can’t use (Coins, Valor, Spirits of Harmony), for the possible betterment of a new main I haven’t even chosen yet.

Obviously I’m getting some form of entertainment, but it is not at the desired level.

On Sunday, I ran ~4 heroics with guildmates and walked out with 8-10 pieces of gear; I zoned in there with maybe two pieces of 450 quest blues and the rest crafted PvP gear. Ended up getting two Strength 2Hs, boots, chest, plus a smattering of tanking drops. As far as I could tell, my DPS on the runs was just shy of 40k, which I am assuming is decent.

Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something. In which case, let me tell the universe: make Retribution more fun.

Truer Words

In the middle of an epicly-long Kotaku article expressing the virtue of Dark Souls’ difficulty, the following lines jumped out and strangled me (emphasis added):

Because you repeat each section of the game so many times, and commit it so firmly to memory, you build up certain tricks and patterns. You achieve mastery, which is satisfying, and yet you always feel like something could go wrong, which is exciting.

When it comes to discussing difficulty in MMOs, I firmly fall on the “make it easy” side of the fence. I enjoy difficulty, I enjoy taxing my abilities to their maximum, but I also believe difficulty has its place; specifically, not in waiting for someone else to finally stop failing so I (we) can succeed. Games like Dark Souls work precisely because they are single-player.

That being said… the bold sentence in the quote above is perhaps the most succinct, inspired description of the mechanics of fun I have ever read.

The Diminishing Returns of Fun

I was listening to an episode of The Instance (#242) today and was struck in a rather fundamental way by what they said in the Mailbag segment. So much so, that I went ahead and captured the 8 minute audio exchange and uploaded it to Youtube so it could be more easily accessed. The reader email question itself was rather asinine, but it elicited a (brief) discussion on how the playerbase of WoW has evolved over time. The evolution of the playerbase, or devolution as some say, has been a frequent whipping boy of forums posters and bloggers for ages – Blizzard dumbing down the game, catering to casuals, and so on.

The thing is, I firmly believe that the argument has always been backwards. Blizzard is not catering to casuals, they are desperately trying to retain that ever-sliding core of veterans. Blizzard is not shaping players, the players are shaping Blizzard. The rest is worth listening to, but I went ahead and transcribed the most important portion of that audio clip, spoken by Scott Johnson:

[Repeating content] is a distinct downside to MMOs in general, and it is why I really enjoy a cultivated experience like Diablo 3 – like the Elder Scrolls games, like I am expecting with Skyrim, like a lot of single-player RPGs – where the wonderment and the excitement and the newness is always present. Because, unless you are freak who plays games six times through for no reason, everything is new as you consume it. Whereas in World of Warcraft, and other MMOs like it, as much as Blizzard tries, and they do the best out there to make things SEEM as fresh as possible. After a while, like that Blood Beast fight… [snip]

But again, I’m kinda with him. This is why I don’t pug much. Because I find that so grindy and so not fun. What I want … if I’m going to do that stuff, I’ll do it with my friends because then THAT is the newness of the experience. Because we’re laughing, Manny said something funny, Pootinky made a fart noise, whatever. We’re having a ball in there. So THAT is fun for me. The actual pugging of the thing for the 5000th time is not fun for me at all in the least. It is just earning money, currency to go get something. And that’s fine, that’s working as a system. But I’m kinda with him that you lose that cultivated experience, you lose that wonderment of walking into a room for the first time, like walking into Ulduar and going “Holy crap! Look at where we have to go and how we have to get there.” And then after a while you are “Oh my gosh, Ulduar can suck it. I hate this fight.”

That is reason the “vanilla forever!” mindset never made sense to me, nor the appeal to nostalgia that was Cataclysm; as they say, you can never cross the same river twice. People like to imagine that if everything had stayed hard, they would not have gradually lost interest in the game. But think about your favorite games of all time. Are those games still fun for you today? Would they still be fun to you if you replayed them half a dozen times back-to-back? You can never recreate that original experience – the wonderment and newness is consumed in the act of experiencing it. And as much as I agree with Scott that Blizzard does a lot in trying to keep content fresh by constant iteration and new boss abilities (etc), at some point you understand on a fundamental level that the Ship of Theseus has sailed, so to speak.

The “catering” is not to casuals, but to the veterans who have reached the end of their original experience and who, through boredom or social ties, are looking for more things to do in-game to fill the time while they wait for schedules to align. But why would veterans actually want extremely fast leveling, faceroll dungeons, and so on? Some of that is actually trying to capture the 80-90% of players who never finish games, sure. But the things like Justice Points and LFD are firmly for the vets. Nils suggests that Blizzard uses “ease” as a weapon in the form of competitive advantage against other MMOs (or perhaps in response to others doing it). Or perhaps in reaction to player “entitlement.”¹ I would argue instead that fun in games has diminishing returns. Running across the entirety of Searing Gorge each time you wipe in BRD might have given you a healthy respect for safe pulling in your formative years, but I guarantee that you would be sick of it four or five years later if it was included everywhere. You learned that lesson, and reinforcing it constantly adds nothing of further value to your experience anymore than would repeating grade school as an adult.

Ultimately, I feel theme-park MMOs are their own worst enemy. Nils told me once that it was in my best interests for an MMO journey to last as long as possible. If I was purely fixated on the eradication of my free time, then sure. I played WoW for over 7000 hours as compared to Xenogears’ 80 hours. But I never once, for a single moment, felt that the magnitude of fun with the former came remotely close to matching the latter. In fact, as is the case with any novel or movie or TV series, the extreme danger is that efforts to elongate the experience instead poisons it². More becomes less. Instead of cultivating a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end, the theme-park MMO model demands an open-endedness at odds with its progressive narrative.

Perhaps this is merely a sign that (theme-park) MMOs are not a genre meant for me. I do not think that is entirely true though. The genius of MMOs is that they appeal to and accommodate a huge variety of players with different interests – as vapid as questing seems to be to vets, it was actually an endearing experience the first (few) times. Instead, I think designers should embrace the end of their games, incorporating a more conclusive experience while leaving the door open for an encore. Or the after-party.

¹ Entitlement is a word so abused by bloggers and commenters that it has lost most of its meaning. Entitlement should not be synonymous with the expectation of a fair exchange of value. Nor should it denigrate legitimate instances of design criticism. It’s honestly getting to the point where you cannot say something is superfluous or inelegant without being accused of feeling “entitled” to, you know, better design.

² See: Lost, Rescue Me, every Terminator movie after T2, every Alien move after Alien 2, etc etc etc.

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.