Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Emergent gameplay in MMORPGS and other seriously serious issues

I came upon this recently. I'm amazed that I had missed it for so long, especially since I had read stuff by David Sirlin before (read his "Playing to Win" book online here if you feel like it, I think it's great and it helped me quite a bit).

(A bit of a warning here, if you couldn't be bothered to follow the first link - I don't think it's necessary in order to understand this post, but it helps)

After reading Sirlin's 2006 article, I cannot but agree with it (which is actually an understatement - it mirrors my feelings on the matter with frightening accuracy). Two things came to my mind after reading it:

1) At first, I didn't much care about his angle of "what does WoW teach our children" (and us, presumably). However, after a while it clicked - it's necessary, because if you don't like some aspects of a game, that's just your opinion and can be discarded, but if those aspects have implications that reach a large audience, then it might affect us all, and we should care. I think he makes a good point that they do. In what follows, I ended up discussing other such aspects.

2) I've been meaning to write stuff about game design as applied to MMORPGs, with a focus on emergent gameplay, for quite a while. This is not treated explicitly by Sirlin, so I figured out I'd give it a try now. It turns out I ended up writing about more than that, going into some issues that are only loosely related to the subject matter, but hey, you can't have everything.

As part of my passion for game design, I tend to read everything I can on the subject. This is how I came upon the concept of "emergent gameplay". What it means is essentially player behaviour unforeseen by the developers - finding ways to play the game that "emerge" from the design, rather than being intended for use in the first place. An example - players climbing on top of one another to reach a high window in Counter-Strike, taking a route that avoids the enemy choke points.

It might seem natural that modern game design (a current I subscribe to, although what "modern game design" means for you might be different from what I think) holds emergent gameplay in high regard, even seeing it as some sort of "Holy Grail" of game design. However, there is a genre which has quite a different mindset - the MMORPG. Here, emergent gameplay is seen as "exploiting", which is synonymous with "cheating".

There exist two successful MMORPG models right now (and even though I say "successful" their scale is totally different, you'll figure it out in a sec). The first one is the Everquest model (which is actually the Meridian 59 model for those of you who know their MMOG history), whose current exponent is World of Warcraft. The second one is the Ultima Online model, currently best represented by EVE Online. The problem affects both, but the second one seems to be more lenient due to its intrinsic nature (might just be my outside perception, though), and the first one is much bigger, so I will be focusing on it (also, I like to bash on WoW as much as the next guy, so there :p).

Because of WoW's position in the field, it's natural to expect that anyone looking to make a MMORPG based on the first model is going to look at it for inspiration. And as you well know, they really do that - in a big way. It's not just the basic gameplay mechanics - everyone is trying to emulate Blizzard both in regard to their code as well as their management of the game, hoping they will get to experience at least 10% of that level of success, and at least for a while.

Therefore, what Blizzard does is what everyone does and furthermore, what everyone takes for granted, and that includes the not-so-great aspects. Hence, we have raids, bind on pickup items, grinding, PvP with mechanics which don't really make PvP fun (really, MMORPG gameplay is horrible for PvP), gold and item sellers, prohibition of gold and item selling, and the big ban on creative ways to play.

And, of course, (almost) every player eventually gets into the mindset that this is how things should work, FOR ALL ETERNITY.

(From here on, when I say Blizzard, I mean everyone who owns/runs an MMORPG - but make no mistake, considering the scale of the games in question, Blizzard is the major factor here anyway)

Here's the catch: from a gameplay perspective, MMOGs have fundamentally bad design. Think about it - what Blizzard actually wants is to keep every player playing (and paying!) for as long as possible. Therefore they simply MUST include some form of time sink, or the players will burn through content at a frightening pace (NB - MMORPGS which were light on the time sinks, like my beloved Tabula Rasa, pretty much crashed and burned eventually. It could be argued that the simple existance of WoW was a factor in their downfall, but that is an issue for another time. Anyway, time sinks are needed). They must limit item availability or every player could get the best equipment by trading instead of investing in the aforementioned time sinks. They must create content that is only accessible by groups, the larger the better, or every player could play through all the content at their own pace and wouldn't be forced to wait for others (and, of course, pay while doing so). They must not allow people to buy items or in-game gold with real world money because... er... they can (really, think about it - what their anti-goldseller measures do is take a LOT of gold out of the game. But that gold is legitimately earned by gold farmers paying to play! Thus, they both render a lot of in-game effort obsolete, and prevent the potential buyers from evading time sinks - 100% win for Blizzard!)

And, of course, there can be no emergent gameplay, because emergent gameplay is exploiting, and exploiting is a deadly sin because -you guessed it- it might allow players to bypass some form of time sink and therefore lose Blizzard money.

This is all fine, because they want to make money, and it's their right to follow this goal to any degree they desire.

What isn't fine, is that they are being assholes about it.

(Necessary parenthesis here. I'm pretty sure that the game developers and game managers of Blizzard are (mostly) distinct entities. For the most part, I would never say bad things about developers, because I know that their life is not nearly as glamorous as portrayed, through no fault of their own (it's actually due to bad practices being so deeply engrained into the history of the games industry that they are taken for granted - again a discussion for another time). Of course, if some of them are involved in the assholery, they are fair game.)

If you've read Sirlin's article, there's not much I can add. It goes like this: instead of enforcing player behavior through code, they chose to do so through moderating, using the EULA as justification. Hence the unspoken, but ever present commandment: "THOU SHALT PLAY THIS GAME <<AS INTENDED>>, OR ELSE".

The way "as intended" is defined can, of course, be quite arbitrary. The end effect is that essentially, players are now responsible for making sure not to "break" the game (according to someone else's interpretation, no less!), rather than Blizzard, whose job you'd think this should be.

Worse still is the way the players become brainwashed into thinking alongside the same lines. Let's take a (not totally) hypothetical example. A group of players finds a way to exploit loot drops in a certain dungeon. They get maybe 2 or 3 times as many items as they should, using some weird method of defeating the boss.

Never mind what would happen if an actual moderator found out about this. Let's take a very different person: the average player. I'm pretty sure I'm not at all mistaken in expecting at least some degree of outrage. Yes, outrage at the actions of completely random people, which don't affect them at all and don't hurt any other player. Even from otherwise sensible people (like my WoW-playing friends - really, guys, I know you read this, leave a comment telling me how much I suck, will you ? :D Or maybe that you are not like that. That would be more awesome). Because Blizzard tells them: "The more time you pour into the game, the more special you are. If you get special enough, we will give you rewards (albeit in a somewhat random manner). But be ever-vigilant for other players who are not as special as you! They don't deserve those rewards yet, and if they get them somehow, they are THE ENEMY."

It's really the same as a student noticing a fellow student cheating during an exam, and telling on him or her. Why do that? The other student is not your enemy, and their results don't affect you (well, it's presumed so for the purpose of this example, but usually true in real life as well). You are just upset that you spent maybe upwards of 12 hours struggling to memorize a bunch of crap, while he or she found a creative use of, say, electronic devices. But it's not fair to blame on others what you do with your own time. If you can't or don't want to cheat, it's noone's choice but yours. Still, on occasion, people will actually do that (as I hear, and it baffles me), probably because of a misundestood concept of fairness. But under the conditions assumed, simple logical reasoning shows that fairness is not an issue here.

It would be easy, and dare I say, unfair, to label the people from both situations as some kind of scrubs (for those too lazy to click on the link, which btw leads to a great site: scrubs = people who make up their own rules, expect others to follow them without any prior agreement, and get upset when they don't). But it's not really that, if you look at it more closely. It's indoctrination - either by Blizzard or by those people who constantly tell you that "cheating" is bad under all circumstances (presumably, the teachers... never trusted the bastards :p). And my choice is to call the people who use indoctrination - assholes.

I shall tell you gently - people, don't be (metaphorical) sheep. Think for yourselves, using logic. It's not that hard and it might help you become a more interesting person.

On at least one occasion I've gotten extra loot in a dungeon in LOTRO. I'm pretty sure that doesn't make me a bad person (err... any more than before, anyway), but feel free to disagree. In that case, it's ok to be a sheep - sheep don't use logic, and you are obviously not using logic, hence the condition suits you. No, I don't think I'm being too harsh.



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