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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.

The Pro-Social Problem

There have been a number of posts lately about making MMOs more pro-social. As you might imagine, nearly every suggestion was a dusting-off of mechanics of the past. “Remember the good old days when you spent 30 minutes of your free time waiting for a boat?” The overall logic seems to be that if you stuff players into an elevator for long enough, eventually they will become friends.

Among the suggestions, what is left unstated is the only truly relevant factor: as a player, do you want to make friends?

To be charitable, let’s assume that that fundamental question has been left unvoiced simply because there isn’t much a designer can do about it. But that’s the thing. If a player of your game isn’t interested in developing life-long friendships, then a lot of your pro-social mechanics are likely to be annoying. For example, Rohan suggested a game in which you have to be in a guild in order to do anything. As someone with zero interest in (more) virtual obligation, that would prevent me from playing such a game at all.

I am not convinced that the “lack” (however that’s measured) of pro-social mechanics in modern MMOs is, in fact, a problem. It is true that I made some friends back in the TBC era of WoW, and that we still interact with one another 5+ years later. It is also true that I could not care less about making more friends; I’m full-up, thanks. How many of us are actively looking for new people to add to our lives?

Now, it is an open question as to whether I would have made the friends I did in TBC had the WoW environment instead been, say, Panderia. It might be easy to suggest I would not have, given we originally met as low-level Alliance players slogging our way through Horde zones to do a Scarlet Monastery dungeon. Between LFD and LFR, it’s quite possible I would not have met any of them even on my no-pop server. Of course, I almost didn’t meet any of them anyway, considering I could have decline doing a dungeon that day, they could have not needed a tank, not wanted another acquaintance, logged on an hour later, etc etc etc. I don’t find “what if?” scenarios especially convincing.

I keep coming back to the main question – do you want to make new friends? – because it doesn’t really matter how the game is structured if you do want to meet people. Communities exist for even single-player games, and so I doubt even a strictly anti-social MMO would stop friendships from forming. So who exactly are these pro-social/anti-solo mechanics even for? As long as the game is structured so that it’s fun to play with the friends that you have (i.e. grouping isn’t punished), I do not see what possible benefit there is to alienating the introverted portion of your audience with arbitrary and forced grouping.

I dunno, maybe I’m just not seeing it. I do not befriend someone because they are a good tank, or good healer, or are always doing the same dailies as I am at 8pm on Thursday evenings. That would make you, at most, a coworker, an acquaintance, a resource, a tool for my own edification. Friendship is something that endures past logging off, which means friendship exists outside of the game itself, which makes the entire pro-social movement seem silly. You can’t “trick” someone into making that leap of interest with some clever programming.

If game designers want to encourage more friendships – in an ironically cynical desire to drive long-term engagement – they need to make more tools for self-expression and other means of broaching out-of-game interaction. World-class rogue DPS? Sure, I’ll use you to ensure my own dungeon run is a success. Oh, your favorite game is Xenogears too? Now I’m interested.

Maybe the assumption is that if we do enough dungeons together, that this friend-making moment will naturally occur. If so, it all seems so hopelessly passive for as disruptive it ends up being for the solo player.

Republican Blues

You may or may not be following the sort of hand-wringing over the Black Market Auction House coming in Mists. Although I believe the sort of philosophical questions the BMAH raises are legitimate, I do not share Rohan’s  (and others’) conclusions.

What I find amusing, though, is Zarhym’s rather tactless approach at community management:

No one should count on this even being close to a viable option for gearing up a character. If you can raise that kind of gold in the game, you’re going to have much better success paying your way into raids for gear than hoping the right items appear for you in the black market AH (which doesn’t include set pieces), hoping you can afford to outbid everyone else on your realm, and hoping you’re the last one to bid before the auction ends.

Sure, it’ll have some of the best rewards for sale. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be remotely reliable for one person to gear up quickly. It’s the black market, after all. :)

Ultimately the system is going to benefit the extremely wealthy and the extremely lucky. But in all likelihood the benefits won’t at all be consistent, even for those who can pony up the gold. (source)

Yes, because god only knows that what the extremely wealthy and extremely lucky need is more systematic benefits. And what a way to come right out and say “You can eat cake,” right? I can almost hear the argument on Fox News that goblins are the job-creators of Azeroth, giving millions of players the opportunity to pick tomatoes farm herbs and run dailies to afford their repair bills and marked-up enchants.

Kidding aside, I am not entirely sure why Blizzard does not simply come out and say “The BMAH is a gold sink. That is its sole purpose.” Prior gold sinks like the Mammoth and motorcycle and Vial of the Sands were fine, but pretty narrow in scope – they catered pretty exclusively to the Pimp My Ride crowd. The BMAH on the other hand hits everyone with a modular storefront filled with recycled content.

I anticipate the BMAH as being wildly, wildly successful at its unstated goal. As for whether the side-effects actually leave the realm of the hypothetical or not, we will presumably find out this Fall… or whenever the hell Mists goes Live.

Out of Game

You may or may not have been following the Gevlon + Rohan argument about whether PLEX-selling – that is purchasing a RMT item that confers 30 days of game time in exchange for in-game currency – constitutes cheating in EVE, or is “unfair,” or skipping content, or is ruining the simulation, etc. It has been a fascinating series of posts precisely because I find it almost impossible to relate to their worldview at all. Parts of the argument have the contours of unassailable logic; see Rohan’s near prose when it comes to inconveniences. And yet some part of my mind reels backwards each time I get too close to accepting their premises.

So, let us back up a bit: what constitutes out-of-game resources/thinking?

Rohan says:

I still think PLEX is unfair. All the arguments for PLEX have sidestepped the basic unfairness issue, and pointed to the good effects that PLEX has. But at it’s heart, Eve permits one faction of players to skip content for real money, but does not do the same for other players. It weakens the fidelity of the economic simulation that is Eve Online. […]

PLEX is like the designated hitter rule in baseball, or shootouts in hockey. It’s legal, it’s in the rule book. It’s popular, the crowds enjoy it. It might even be necessary for the continued health of the game. But baseball without the designated hitter is a purer form of baseball, as is hockey sans shootouts.

See what I mean about contours of unassailable logic? PLEX can exist within the game, in your cargo hold or on the AH, but it is not of the game, so to speak. You cannot be mining an asteroid and a PLEX fall out; you cannot assemble a PLEX from a blueprint. Every PLEX that exists came into being from a cash transaction outside of the game. In a very real way, it is a breaking of the 4th wall. Rohan is essentially correct.

…and yet, I cannot shake the nagging feeling of the arbitrary.

Across the main post and comments, Gevlon says:

You can only skip grind. If you skip competitive elements, you are cheating. Skipping any competitive element is cheating. Otherwise you are on the slippery slope of “I just skip one more element” until the point of you skip it all and buy a pilot with top killboard stats and peacock around without actually killing anyting yourself. That’s not against the ToS either. […]

@Ephemeron: true that for most people getting E15 is probably just as long as solo mining 500M ISK but it’s an out-of-game skill. Again, if we accept this, the conclusion is “the best way of winning EVE is being good in RL money making”

And also:

@Azuriel: you are an inch from being banned from here for being an idiot.

The second account ship obeys the same rules as the first. With 2 hulks you can mine twice as fast, true. But can lose two times more ISK to a ganker.

Real life money is real life money. Buying things in real life with it is normal. Having lot of money is winning RL. But a game is separated from RL for a reason. Buying an EVE-ship by having RL money is just as bizzare as buying a car from ISK.

Putting aside the unfounded belief in the objectiveness of sandbox competition, I see the contours in this argument as well. The ISK from the sale of the PLEX cannot be affected by anything Gevlon does; the credit card which creates the PLEX cannot be ganked, unlike the ship earning 500m ISK mining Veldspar.

But let us go back to our question: what constitutes out-of-game resources/thinking?

Where things break down for me, in both arguments, is when it comes to the arbitrary natures of the distinctions being made. Gevlon, for example, is perfectly fine with multi-boxing. He himself has three accounts running so as to have three separate characters gaining skill points… in an apparently competitive game. But at what point did a second and third account not count as buying advantage using real-life money? Those additional accounts are supporting the primary one: his original “competitive goal” of buying and piloting a Titan is only becoming a quicker reality due to the additional skill point paths he is paying a premium for. Using just one account, his goal would be months (if not years) farther off, as he cannot train Trading and Combat skills at the same time.

I find Rohan’s argument similarly arbitrary. What makes PLEX so especially odious and disrupting? The nakedness of purchasing it from CCP? Consider for a moment other out-of-game transactions. Does multiboxing reduce the fidelity of the economic simulation? Although both of your spaceships exist in the “pure” game world, the reality is that you are paying for an advantage over those with one account. A normal player cannot be in two places simultaneously, nor specializing in two separate skills, nor being able to jump around and trade on six different stations. And let us not pretend opening a 2nd account is any less naked than PLEX.

For the moment though, let us assume that multiboxing is fine.

Is it fine to accept ISK from a friend whom also plays the game? Is the competitiveness of the game intact, should he simply pay for all of your ship fittings and cover all of your losses? Does that constitute out-of-game? Let us even assume he received all of his ISK “legitimately.”

Suppose that instead of simply gifting you the ISK, your friend grants it as payment for letting him copy your homework. Or for driving him to the airport. Out-of-game? What if you offered to pay his EVE subscription for a month, in return for 500m ISK? Your friend still risked his ship getting ganked, still had to undercut Gevlon’s Veldspar by .01 ISK on the AH, and so on.

Rohan and Gevlon’s arguments have such shapely contours because they imitate the elegance of Plato’s Forms: the “pure” EVE is such, and self-contained. But it’s not. Other people exist, and the relationships can cross over between in-game and out-of-game. Ever play Monopoly? You may not have been able to buy Boardwalk by slipping the Banker a real $20 bill, but in the last game I played every single one of us brought in out-of-game resources in the form of favors, grudges, and so on. I gave my friend Andreas a railroad essentially out of spite; he had done nothing in-game to warrant such a one-sided transaction, but I was tired of Aaron winning all the time.

Point being, I can understand how PLEX appears as an “obvious” case of Pay-To-Win (assuming you subscribe to the notion of ISK = winning)… but I see no rational reason to draw such otherwise arbitrary distinctions. Using a Vent or Mumble server to coordinate attacks is an out-of-game maneuver. So is helping a friend with ISK, either freely or for services rendered. I would even argue that reading gaming blogs and Wikis and other 3rd party websites are absolutely out-of-game resources regardless of whether you can open up a browser in-game or not.

Where is the clearly delineated line? Does it start at the cash shop, or at the relationships you bring to the game? Is there one at all?