The Obsession with Math and Numbers in MMOs

einsteinA few nights ago while playing my paladin in the Wrath of the Lich King beta I overheard a conversation in General Chat in the Borean Tundra. There were two rogues discussing the DPS (damage per second) of one talent build versus another talent build. The debate lasted a few minutes and other people joined in with varying opinions on the “correct” talent builds that a rogue should have. What I found strange is that people were not talking about their experiences adventuring in the newly discovered continent of Northrend. Rather, they reminded me of two physicists debating competing theories and equations. Welcome to the World of Theorycraft!

These days massively multiplayer online role-playing games have been reduced to the pursuit of mathematics and numbers. The constant and continual deconstruction of the inner workings of MMOs has come at a great cost: players are no longer focused on the spirit of adventure, the art of role-playing, the thrill of exploration or the joys of community. Instead all they seem to care about is the finding proper talent spec and attaining the highest amount of effectiveness with their damage or healing output. Contrary to Blizzard’s claims about World of Warcraft that “it’s not a game, it’s a world” the player that dares to dig a bit deeper soon finds that the underlying premise of their MMO is that it’s really just a clinical numbers game.

Due to the fact that most MMOs today lack the capability to be changed in any appreciable way by the player it has had the effect of limiting the avenues for player freedom and expression. This restrictive environment forces players to express themselves in the only way that is possible in the game world environment: via character attributes. Players quickly learn the best way to improve one’s “numbers” is with better gear that gives one better damage, better heals and so on. The bigger the number the better: level 70 is better than level 1, 100 DPS is better than 90 DPS, 50 armor is better than 40 armor and so on.

As players it becomes all too easy to tie up our notions of self worth and value into the gear we wear and the talent builds we’ve chosen. In today’s achievement oriented world players routinely can walk up to another player and inspect them and determine if they are “worthy” or not. We can also determine a players class knowledge by viewing their Armory profile and talent build. It is because of this peer pressure that the drive to self-actualize your character has never been greater.

A Language of Numbers

As we look around in virtual worlds we seem to have forgotten to notice the beauty around us. Things only have worth if they have the right numbers. It’s not enough to be wielding the Sword of Kingly Might and know that it’s powerful, heavy and is adorned with rare gems. Now players must be told that the sword does 120 damage, has a 90 damage per second rating, has a speed of 3.20, gives the player +25 to their strength and procs a lifetap of 50 points of health .05% of the time and can only be used by warriors and paladins. The language of MMOs has become dominated by numbers.

Despite the natural curiosity of players it’s foolish to let players in on the inner workings of your game to the extent that Blizzard has done so with WoW. Just as most automobile drivers have no clue on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine in order to drive their car down the block, players should not need to know the inner workings of how their MMO works in order to have fun.

Theorycrafting and Elitist Jerks

Just look at the most of the MMO class discussion forums these days and you’ll soon realize that it’s all about players trying to arrive at the best winning formula for their chosen class.  Players talk less about lore and adventure and more about talent builds and gear. We even have a dedicated website for WoW theorycraft gone wild called Elitist Jerks; there the minutiae of every talent build, statistic, weapon and class is analyzed to death on a daily basis.

As mentioned previously, players are judged by the quality of their talent specs. Individualism is frowned upon by the experts on the various class discussion boards. Woe to the player that fails to research their class and damage output of their talent build! Even worse, is the fate of a player that chooses the “wrong” talent build. That player is quickly labeled a “noob” or a “scrub”.

The Legacy of Dungeons & Dragons

The origin of numbers, statistics and calculations originated from pen and paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Although numbers played a significant role, they were subservient to the themes of adventure and role-playing. When researching this article I went to the official D&D website and was shocked at how much MMOs like WoW have deteriorated when compared to the vision of D&D. Here are a few paragraphs taken from their website:

D&D is an imaginative, social experience that engages players in a rich fantasy world filled with larger-than-life heroes, deadly monsters, and diverse settings. As a hobby game, D&D is an ongoing activity to which players might devote hours of their time—much like a weekly poker game—getting together with friends on a regular basis for weeks, months, or even years.

Players create heroic fantasy characters — mighty warriors, stealthy rogues, or powerful wizards — which they guide through an ongoing series of adventures, working together to defeat monsters and other challenges and growing in power, glory, and achievement. The game offers endless possibilities and a multitude of choices . . . more choices than even the most sophisticated computer game, because you can do whatever you can imagine!

The possibilities of D&D (listed above) echo the potential that MMOs once had but a few years ago. No powergamers, no min-maxers, no farmers, no powerlevelers, no calculators, no spreadsheets. Clearly, we have fallen very short from the original ideals that were the embodiment of those classic role-playing games. If anything we need to restore those venerable ideals back into their rightful place in MMO’s. But, in order to fix the problem we need to see where it things started going off the track.

Enter EverQuest

Our current fascination with expending the minimum amount of effort for the maximum result probably came about from the grim reality of survival in pre-WoW MMOs like EverQuest. During the first few years of EverQuest we can see that a certain segment of the player base realized that mastering math was in fact the way to “beat” the system. The penalty for death was so harsh that people would do all they could to avoid it and it created a survival of the fittest mentality. It was all about reducing risk and staying alive at all costs.

Those that took the time to crunch numbers and optimize their behavior were rewarded with access to tougher monsters and better gear; those that didn’t fell behind. Players would do all they could to maximize their return on investment of their time.  So the min-maxers and powergamers were born. Richard Bartle in his famous essay entitled Players Who Suit MUDS called them “achievers”.

The Most Unusual Suspects

In a terrific post on the Fires of Heaven forums, EtadanikM lays the blame squarely on the heads of the developers for the current obsession with number crunching and optimization. (Note: This is one of the best posts I’ve read on the current sorry state of MMOs and I encourage everyone to read it). Here’s a small excerpt:

Regrettably, the verdict is that the founders are guilty. It was the original MMO players who began this descent. Yes, it was inevitable. Yes, the devs encouraged them. Yes, it was part of a general trend in gaming (and some would argue society in general) that was more or less unstoppable. But still, the ones who brought the elitism, the obsession with gear, the power gaming, the trivialization, etc. into MMOs were all there at the beginning: Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, etc. on the devs side. EQ veterans who rushed to raiding and building sites like Thottbot and AllakhazamWoW on the players side. It’s not so much the Blizzard tendency towards perfecting an existing idea as opposed to coming up with an entirely new one; it’s more the fact that WoW is an amalgamation of two old cultures: the Battle.net crowd, who have been asshats since the days of Starcraft and who worshiped the concept of 0.0001% drops (via Diablo/Diablo II), and the EQ/DAoC/AC crowd, who by this time was all into the endless treadmill of uberism. Decades’ worth of aging cultures gave birth to WoW, which was grey before it was even conceived.

Many of the current top developers at Blizzard were EverQuest guild leaders of top raiding guilds: Rob Pardo (Ariel), Jeffrey Kaplan (Tigole) and Alex Afrasiabi (Furor). These guys literally created raiding as we know it today in MMOs like WoW; it’s worth noting that raiding was never intended as a game activity in the original EQ. These guys were the first rockstars of the MMO era and the EQ devs were only too happy to create cutting edge content to keep them happy. It soon became a symbiotic relationship that ended up dominating the future direction of the genre.

I mentioned the rise of the uberguild phenomenon in my Open Letter to SOE in 2004 as one of the problems with the current state of EQ. Back then the raiding culture had become an out of control train speeding down the tracks. Those EQ raiding guilds required that recruits adopt a strict hardcore, powergamer, achiever type attitude. As raiding become the dominant play style it had the negative effect of diminishing the relevancy other types of play styles: the explorers, the socializers and role-players. After all, who had time to do any of those seemingly trivial things when you were busy achieving? Today these very same powergamer devs have created the ultimate numbers game for the masses: WoW.

Better Virtual Worlds Through Math?

Developers have removed the mystique from virtual worlds like WoW. Everything is revealed to players these days. Every mechanic has a number and percentage associated with it. The worst thing of all is that the current crop of developers have purposely crafted this addiction to numbers among their players. Rob Pardo Blizzard VP of Design, speaking at the GDC Conference in San Francisco said the following in 2008:

Math is the foundation of your game system.

You notice he didn’t say adventure, quests or immersion: he said “math”.  While it’s true that computer games certainly need to have a system whereby combat is computed and calculated via numbers, the extent that Blizzard has opened up the hood and let players view inside the engine is cause for concern. Players should be enjoying playing in a virtual world without having to worry about about the math.

Imagine for a moment that you were around a person that constantly took their blood pressure, measured their biceps, weighed themselves on a scale, took their pulse, etc. You’d go crazy being around that person! Yet that is exactly what is happening today in most MMO’s. In the name of maximum efficiency, we’ve become obsessed with statistics to the point of absurdity. Achieving higher levels, stats, attributes, damage have become the raison d’être of MMOs.

The Play To Win Mindset

As other types of video gamers started migrating to MMOs from FPS games like Quake and Counterstrike they brought with them the play to win competitive philosophy. Therefore it stands to reason that players that play to win will use every possible advantage to prevail over their opponents. Theorycrafting: the analysis of character attributes, talents and weapons and combining classes in groups and raids in order to achieve damage/heal synergies illustrates this mindset perfectly.

Racing to the Endgame

The current obsession with achievement, stats and numbers is eating away at the fabric of what fantasy virtual worlds should be about: allowing the player to express themselves fully while being immersed in exotic lands of magic, mystery and adventure in the company of fellow travelers. Designers with limited vocabularies are only too eager to push a reward, reward, reward mantra onto players that elevates the worship of higher numbers above all else in virtual worlds.

No longer are we content to stop and smell the roses in the MMOs we play. Instead most players are singularly focused on reaching the level cap as fast as possible. Companies like Blizzard have compounded the problem by placing all of the best and most polished content at the illusory “endgame”. Thus everyone in WoW is in a perpetual hurry to reach that magical number that awaits us at the level cap. This has very dangerous ramifications in that content that takes months to create is disposable and players now feel entitled to an easy ride to the good stuff that awaits them at the endgame.

We Too Are the Problem

Finally, we need to take an honest look at ourselves in the larger equation of what went wrong with MMOs. People today live in a consumer culture of entitlement and convenience. We are constantly bombarded with messages of productivity and time management. We have power lunches and take power naps. We work hard and we play hard. We are time-starved powergamers.

Although our world may be full of uncertainty, we expect our virtual worlds to be predictable. Thanks to MMOs like WoW, we log on and we expect to get a rate of return for our time and investment. We live in an age of instant heroism for the mere price of $15.99 a month. We want results and we want them yesterday. It’s no wonder that we have forsaken the old gods and started worshiping the false idols of numbers in order to track our progress.

Conclusion

The preoccupation with numbers has become an unhealthy distraction for players. Take away the premise of math and numbers and you’d have to wonder if and MMO like WoW would even have a purpose. The truth is that without them, WoW and MMOs like it would crumble like a house of cards. Some of the astute players among us have already begun to realize that and soon the masses will catch on too. Again EtadanikM leaves us with some parting words of wisdom that explain this:

And so you are here, yearning for those experiences of old, counting the years since you were last truly excited about a MMO. But be glad, at least, that you were part of the scene when it was young. Today’s gamers, they will not have that opportunity. They will have inherited a culture already aged and decrepit, and they will grow old before they were ever young. I’ve seen it happen again and again – brand new MMO players going into WoW and getting burned out within a year or two, having “seen through it all.” They say things today that only after half a decade of time in EQ did I truly begin to feel: that MMOs are pointless exercises in futility, an endless pursuit of worthless numbers wrapped in tedious time sinks. A donkey and carrot game where it’s always beyond your reach. This is the wisdom that age has brought the MMO culture – that it’s all a sham.

Where to proceed, from here? How do you revitalize the MMO industry, a culture where expectations are already so formidable, the rules so set in stone, the cynicism so deep?

That will be the challenge for the next generation of trailblazers. May they be wiser than we.

Those are brutally frank words and he is probably right. So can the current MMO design paradigm be salvaged? Part of it is that people have forgotten why they started playing MMOs in the first place. Some where along the way we traded in the immediacy of our swords and shields for the security of calculators and slide rulers. We’ve become risk averse accountants and statisticians instead of foolhardy adventurers and explorers. It’s because of our insatiable appetite for deconstruction and demystification that we have become our own worst enemies.

We need a new language with which to communicate in MMOs that goes beyond numbers to explain and quantify things. Players need more meaningful ways to express themselves in MMOs. We need to strive for new loftier goals that go beyond the narrow focus of acquiring better weapons and better armor. It’s time to relegate numbers back to their proper place — they should be serving us instead of subjugating us.

-Wolfshead

23 thoughts on “The Obsession with Math and Numbers in MMOs

  1. Are we talking about the same D&D? You know, the one that required 6 different kinds of dice and where the terms “minmaxing” and “munchkin” originated from? You know, the game where everything, including bouts of roleplay, were measured in experience points?

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  3. MMOs as they exist now are not terribly enjoyable for me, so I just don’t play them. I don’t think there’s anything -wrong- with them at the heart though. Just because they don’t provide what -I- want in a game doesn’t mean they’re fatally flawed. It seems that there are a great many people who enjoy MMOs as they are, and an apparently frustrated/vocal minority who wish there was something more to them.

    I admit it’s disappointing to have grown up on MUDs and see something comparatively shallow swoop in and replace them. Like many gamers, I saw my ‘gaming time’ pool slowly decrease as the focus on math and time investment increased in MMOs. That only makes the ‘falling behind’ phenomenon hurt more. Regardless of quality and gaming trends though, I’ll never be as immersed in a game as I was with my first few MUDs. That feeling of freshness coupled with oodles of free time is such a breeding ground for wonder. I do hope that some really deep ‘adventure’ style game breaks onto the scene eventually, but that hope comes with the realization that I’ll experience only a small part of it.

    Oddly enough, one of the things that turns me off about MMOs is the style of socialization. While I enjoy playing games with other real people, I don’t play games to make friends. If we team up for a quest or dungeon romp, great! Some good old-fashioned role-playing, also great! But I don’t care what your real name is, how old you are, where you live or what your dog’s name is. Maybe I’m just a grouch, but I like my games to be games, not some friend-finder/dating service.

  4. Add to the numbers game a “random number generator” and all is lost. Imagine my dismay when I saw “resist” on my perfectly aimed fireball…..

    This quote, “an endless pursuit of worthless numbers wrapped in tedious time sinks. “ will keep my WoW subscription off for Wrath of the Lich King.

  5. I was wondering the same thing. RPGs on the computer were meant to take the math out, at least in part, but perhaps people really do want the math. It’s a simple way to quantify effort and achievement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s best for design, but it’s certainly something that’s deep in RPG DNA, especially JRPGs, where grinding and fiddling are the main methods of controlling your avatar(s). The heavily scripted gaming (FFX vs Neverwinter Nights, for example) mean relatively little customization and “role playing” outside of fiddling, tweaking and min/maxing.
    RPGs are, after all, Games. Perhaps a shift more to the RP than the G is in order to revitalize the industry, as well as alternate metrics for progress, but there’s obviously a market for the stat-obsessed.

  6. Players did the “math” in D&D because it was the only way at the time of actually playing the game. I doubt anyone was attracted to the game because they could “roll dice”. I’m glad that Wizards of the Coast is trying to market their game system they way they are. Perhaps there is a disconnect from the actuality of the gaming experience and the image they want to promote. At least their vision is something I can get behind and appreciate. D&D seems like it offers players more freedom and choices then what is currently being offered in MMOs. After all, the possibilities of the human imagination is limitless.

    Tesh is right when he talks about how computers were supposed to liberate players from all of the manual rolling of dice and character attribute manipulation. Players are naturally curious about the games they play and when you consider that players have been playing MMOs for many years it’s no wonder that some of them seek to understand all of the mechanics. Players get bored and seek to solve every mystery and puzzle — game mechanics are no different.

    If I may use an analogy: when I go for a leisurely drive I don’t think about the cyclinders and pistons in the internal combustion engine in my car, I try to enjoy the drive and the scenery instead. I don’t question the efficiency of my motor engine but of course there are some folks that love automobiles that are very much interested in that sort of thing.

    The “under the hood” access to inner workings of mechanics that Blizzard has given to players is unprecedented. I just don’t think it’s a healthy thing for games to have everyone constantly deconstructing them.

  7. Another snippet of thought, Wolf: It’s often easier for people to prowl the WoWWiki or other deconstruction articles than it is to play and try to suss it out independently. Sometimes it’s because people are studying at work during lunch or something (where they can’t realistically actually play the game), sometimes it’s just because of different learning types. Sometimes it’s just lazy, but it’s as often because of lack of time, due to real life.
    Yes, some people derive pleasure from figuring it out on their own, but other people are just curious as to how things work, and are limited in their play time. (Speaking from experience, of course, and I happen to like both, given time to do them.) For me, I’m also very interested in the engine because I’m a designer as well. I like to see what they do, and why, where possible. I’ve said it before (somewhere): I’m a data sponge, and the more they dribble out, the happier I am. Does that “ruin” the game for me? Sort of… but since my training is in Pixar-quality computer animation, CG in movies is also somewhat “ruined”.
    Sometimes I just have to step back and enjoy the ride, but for me, it’s a conscious effort at times. It’s one of the curses of education… but one I happily bear because of my deep aversion to ignorance.

  8. @Aimedshot: Trust me, Wrath of the Lich King is really more of the same. I’m not too impressed with my beta experiences thus far. I hope to do an article on it sometime soon.

    @Tesh: Good points about how many of us love to learn more about MMO’s while we are “offline” and not actually playing in the game. In a way that’s ruined the immediacy for me. These days nobody would dare to enter an instance without first researching the bosses, strats, layout and potential gear upgrades found within. I have done this myself because honestly I find I have a limited amount of time to spend as do my fellow group mates.

    I think part of the answer here is we need to eliminate the predictability of the content. If every encounter was fresh and new then there would be no advantage to researching things on the Internet before hand. This would have the effect of putting everyone on an equal playing field.

    Of course this would make content development and testing ten times harder and more expensive. So there are really no easy answers.

  9. I just thought I’d add a few more thoughts to my original article.

    Numbers are taking away much of the personal relationship we have with things in virtual worlds.

    Example1: What if you had 3 swords in your backpack. They all look different in appearance. There are no numbers on any of the swords and no descriptions whatsoever. Yet by just looking at them you really have no idea about how fast they are, how heavy they are and how much damage they do.

    Question: How does the player know how to evaluate each sword?

    Answer: by using them in combat

    Eventually the player would soon learn the characteristics of each sword. They would get to know firsthand which of the 3 swords is the fastest, which is the heaviest and which does the most damage. Therefore in order for the player to acquire this knowledge they have to actually *use* each sword in combat.

    Contrast this with the current system in most MMO’s like WoW where numbers represent each of the stats on the sword: the player at a glance and within a split second can figure out which sword does the most damage, is the fastest, etc.

    Scenario A: the player actually has to use and interact with the swords in order to learn and appreciate them

    Scenario B: the player does not have to actually use the swords and can easily evaluate the swords by means of the numbers

    Which of these experiences is more personal and visceral for the player?

    Answer: Scenario A

    Using numbers to quantify and represent everything detaches the player from the gaming experience and virtual world. The player no longer has to use his/her brain to experience and evaluate the item and instead relies on a number to make his/her value judgment.

    Example 2: Would you choose your mate solely by their measurements, IQ, body weight, height and personality profile? Or would you actually like to meet them first and evaluate them personally?

    Using numbers to the extent that they are used in current MMOs distances the players from the world they are supposed to be immersed in. It denies the joys of tactile evaluation and observation. Providing a numerical representation for everything cheats the player out of the accomplishment of learning for themselves. More exposure to numeric values does not equate to better games or better virtual worlds. Less is more.

  10. Wolf,
    “I think part of the answer here is we need to eliminate the predictability of the content. If every encounter was fresh and new then there would be no advantage to researching things on the Internet before hand. This would have the effect of putting everyone on an equal playing field.”

    Couldn’t that also just make things more frustrating? Or, at least it would if the design is built around specific gear, class and spec expectations, and players have to try and find the combination… that’s never the same. You’re right, it would take a lot more work to rejigger things such that any old PUG could muddle their way through, or at least have a good time. (The wipe threshold seems razor thin in some scenarios, from what I understand… I’m no raider.)

    Thing is, would that be leaning again to the vilified “casual” side of the game? Part of what made the raids “hardcore” was the sussing out of the choreography, and the potential to wipe ever present if someone botches their part. The other main alternative to “making it harder” is to go the Final Fantasy route, and give “bosses” hundreds of millions of HP.

    I don’t think that either of those alternatives is really palatable for making something hardcore or difficult, but they are cheap and relatively effective. What else is there? Dynamic strategies might be one option, giving the baddies some more tactical AI, but again, that can just make things frustrating when the punishment for screwing up is harsh, and the players don’t have mechanics to fight back with. The “threat” mechanic is dumb, but it gives the players tools to fight the obscenely overpowered bad guys.

    It’s a fine dance; give players scripted encounters, and they like the puzzle aspect of it, but not the mindlessness once it’s solved. Give players “bigger, badder” bosses, and the endurance slugfest can appeal to some, but it’s equally mindnumbing to many. Specifically to WoW, create an intelligent AI, with real tactics, and watch as the back row squishies die (and everyone else soon thereafter) because the core game mechanics are built around the “threat” concept, rather than tactical blocking and other positioning issues.

    If the goal is to encourage experimentation and exploration, there have to be appropriate rewards for it, and there need not be harsh punishments, or people don’t persist at it. WoW has carrots to dangle that encourage persistence, but if we’re looking at things from a pure gameplay perspective, actually playing has to be fun. Unless wiping somehow becomes fun in and of itself, that means dialing back the punishments to give people wiggle room to try new things, especially if the baddie content is dynamic to any degree.

    Certainly, one of the cool things I love doing in games is testing myself and my skills against new situations. It’s what Raph Koster touched on with his “fun is learning in a safe environment” comment. People like to learn new things. Trouble is, if the learning environment is more like Catholic boarding school than the playground, it’s considerably less fun. Sure, the intellectual rigor is greater, and learning can be stronger (if resented, at times), but we’re making games, for crying out loud. People need to have fun with them, and we as designers can’t be out to force the player to jump through our hoops or take our rulers across the knuckles.

    Put another way, we can’t aim for flexibility and dynamic content but require players to go through the same hardcore punishment mechanics. It’s not fair to the players. Sure, there are some masochists who will still play Metroid with no saving or continuing, but really, that’s not the mainstream of gaming any more. I, for one, lived through those days, and I’m glad to see them gone.

    We may vilify WoW for easing back the difficulty, but in so doing, they have made strides toward making the game more fun to actually play. They have made other questionable choices, certainly, but swinging the pendulum back to punishment isn’t really viable these days. How do we make game engines that are fun to play with, but still interesting and challenging? Where’s the threshold where challenge crosses into annoyance, the kiss of death for a “service economy” subscription model? It’s obviously different for differently skilled players, which is anther thing to compensate for.

  11. Couldn’t that also just make things more frustrating? Or, at least it would if the design is built around specific gear, class and spec expectations, and players have to try and find the combination… that’s never the same. You’re right, it would take a lot more work to rejigger things such that any old PUG could muddle their way through, or at least have a good time. (The wipe threshold seems razor thin in some scenarios, from what I understand… I’m no raider.)

    Obviously content would have to be completely redesigned from scratch. I think it’s terrible that certain “content” i.e. bosses are designed to have certain classes in attendance. For me, that kind of game design leads to one-dimensional gameplay.

    I don’t think that either of those alternatives is really palatable for making something hardcore or difficult, but they are cheap and relatively effective. What else is there? Dynamic strategies might be one option, giving the baddies some more tactical AI, but again, that can just make things frustrating when the punishment for screwing up is harsh, and the players don’t have mechanics to fight back with. The “threat” mechanic is dumb, but it gives the players tools to fight the obscenely overpowered bad guys.

    I agree the threat mechanic is pretty silly. Take it away and the entire tank/healer/damage class system completely evaporates and takes the MMO with it.

    It’s a fine dance; give players scripted encounters, and they like the puzzle aspect of it, but not the mindlessness once it’s solved. Give players “bigger, badder” bosses, and the endurance slugfest can appeal to some, but it’s equally mindnumbing to many. Specifically to WoW, create an intelligent AI, with real tactics, and watch as the back row squishies die (and everyone else soon thereafter) because the core game mechanics are built around the “threat” concept, rather than tactical blocking and other positioning issues.

    I’m not saying take threat away. I’m just saying that the current system is unfair because it puts all of the onus for deciphering each boss encounter on a few hardcore guilds that seem to have endless time on their hands. Once the optimum strategy is found it is then posted on the Internet and less hardcore players adopt it.

    Everyone seems to complain about how boring and predictable WoW is these days. With dynamic encounters this problem would not be so prevalent.

    If the goal is to encourage experimentation and exploration, there have to be appropriate rewards for it, and there need not be harsh punishments, or people don’t persist at it. WoW has carrots to dangle that encourage persistence, but if we’re looking at things from a pure gameplay perspective, actually playing has to be fun. Unless wiping somehow becomes fun in and of itself, that means dialing back the punishments to give people wiggle room to try new things, especially if the baddie content is dynamic to any degree.

    The current punishment system which is time and repairs (money) is incurred by the hardcore players. But again, is it really “fun” to go to the Internet and research how to defeat a boss? To me this is a cop out. What MMOs like WoW have become are complicated broadway number with their heavily scripted encounters. Maybe some people find that fun it’s too much repetition for me. Of course it may be great for the average gamer.

    Also there could be ways to scale the difficulty of boss encounters depending on the agregate value of the gear that players bring to the raid. Therefore the challenge always remains at a constant level as opposed to the current system that makes the content increasingly easier as the members of the raid “gear up” in that particular dungeon.

    Certainly, one of the cool things I love doing in games is testing myself and my skills against new situations. It’s what Raph Koster touched on with his “fun is learning in a safe environment” comment. People like to learn new things. Trouble is, if the learning environment is more like Catholic boarding school than the playground, it’s considerably less fun. Sure, the intellectual rigor is greater, and learning can be stronger (if resented, at times), but we’re making games, for crying out loud. People need to have fun with them, and we as designers can’t be out to force the player to jump through our hoops or take our rulers across the knuckles.

    Yet not all learning is painless and easy. When a child is told constantly by their parents that they shouldn’t touch a hot element on the stove, they may or may not truly understand. When the child feels the heat for themselves — that is when they truly learn about the danger of the element.

    For new players, they get this same kind of harsh reality check when they venture into a zone that has all high level monsters. Within seconds of entering they are killed. Result: the player just learned an important lession — be careful of where you travel to.

    I remember way back in the original WoW, my guild started Blackwing Lair for the first time after having Molten Core on farm status. It was very tough and led to a lot of disatisfaction and acrimony in the guild with members leaving and lots of problems. I know full well that hardship and the pain that is felt when learning becomes very “unfun”.

    The problem with the transition between Molten Core and Blackwing Lair was that was far too steep of a learning curve. It was a raid zone that was the cause of many guilds breaking up.

    MMO encounters should be naturally scaled in difficulty as the person increases in level or at least stepped in difficulty from the previous encounter you have mastered.

    Put another way, we can’t aim for flexibility and dynamic content but require players to go through the same hardcore punishment mechanics. It’s not fair to the players. Sure, there are some masochists who will still play Metroid with no saving or continuing, but really, that’s not the mainstream of gaming any more. I, for one, lived through those days, and I’m glad to see them gone.

    We may vilify WoW for easing back the difficulty, but in so doing, they have made strides toward making the game more fun to actually play. They have made other questionable choices, certainly, but swinging the pendulum back to punishment isn’t really viable these days. How do we make game engines that are fun to play with, but still interesting and challenging? Where’s the threshold where challenge crosses into annoyance, the kiss of death for a “service economy” subscription model? It’s obviously different for differently skilled players, which is anther thing to compensate for.

    I think in an effort to embrace a larger demographic video games are losing the “game” and becoming more like toys. There’s a popular term in the video game industry now called “software toy”. Games like Nintendogs, Animal Crossing, Lego Star Wars, etc. are all examples of software toy games. There is definately a place for sandbox type behavior in MMOs but there should also be game type challenges too.

    The trick is to achieve a good balance between challenge and fun. Every game designer must wrestle with this constantly. And another thing to consider is ensuring the right amount of both depending on the skill level that the player brings to the table. I think in many ways WoW has a good balance of various challenges for the player at least at the endgame phase not so much in the beginning.

    Personally speaking, I rarely feel like I’m challenged by the solo content which is a shame. It would be nice to see more diverse types of challenges for solo players just as there are for groups/raids currently.

    Thanks for the great comments! Really good stuff and lots to think about :)

  12. Contrary to Blizzard’s claims about World of Warcraft that “it’s not a game, it’s a world”

    Hahahahahaha. That is the most absurd thing I’ve heard in a while. WoW is pure game. So much so it would probably be better as a LAN game than an MMO. There is nothing “world-like” about it. 99% of the world is irrelevant, nothing ever changes in the world, and players have no effect on it.

    We can also determine a players class knowledge by viewing their Armory profile and talent build.

    The armory is one of the most destructive ideas ever in MMO-dom. I have actually been in discussions online and had people demand that I link my armory profile in order to verify my “credentials.” Absurd. I remember on the official forums people would counter good discussion points with “hahaha, your is terrible for someone of your level. l2play n00b.” Others would join in and agree that one’s armory profile could somehow totally invalidate otherwise reasonable points.

    The penalty for death was so harsh that people would do all they could to avoid it and it created a survival of the fittest mentality

    I am not sure there is a causal connection here. The death penalty on EQ was nothing compared to most of the MUDs that predated it, and people on MUDs were nowhere near as number obsessed as EQ players. I think it is totally on the game design, and the fact that EQ and its progeny focussed far too much on statistical/gear development and not enough on personality/character development.

    it’s worth noting that raiding was never intended as a game activity in the original EQ.

    This point should be hammered home as often as possible. Raiding is like AIDS and syphylis: an accidental creation that spread because it was connected to an activity people enjoy (sex vs. gear whoring).

    I mentioned the rise of the uberguild phenomenon in my Open Letter to SOE in 2004 as one of the problems with the current state of EQ. Back then the raiding culture had become an out of control train speeding down the tracks. Those EQ raiding guilds required that recruits adopt a strict hardcore, powergamer, achiever type attitude. As raiding become the dominant play style it had the negative effect of diminishing the relevancy other types of play styles

    I quote this mainly just to agree. You can see it continue in MMOs, as being a small guild is almost pointless. Guild content is continually designed only for HUGE guilds who are then driven to recruit any warm body they can get their hands on. You cannot hope to enjoy most of a modern MMO’s content if your guild has a theme or a purpose behind it.

    Imagine for a moment that you were around a person that constantly took their blood pressure, measured their biceps, weighed themselves on a scale, took their pulse, etc. You’d go crazy being around that person! Yet that is exactly what is happening today in most MMO’s.

    That is a great analogy.

    The Play To Win Mindset

    This is one that frustrates me quite a bit. I am, personally, a weird combo. I love role play, but I do enjoy powergaming. By powergaming though, I mostly just mean learning to be really good at the game. In the “old days”, I enjoyed taking along friends that weren’t “as good as me”, as it was a chance to play with friends and help them out. But modern MMOs make that impossible. Dungeons and raids are designed so every single person has to be at the top of their game and can never make a mistake. You can’t bring along a friend who is an average gamer (and god forbid he/she be below average). If you do, all 25 people suffer. That sucks. That is the worst result of this “play to win mindset.” You end up having to play with jerks you don’t like simply because they are the only ones you can find who are good enough to partake in the content. :(

    -Cambios
    Blogging about Online Gaming and Virtual Worlds:
    http://www.muckbeast.com

  13. I remember way back in the original WoW, my guild started Blackwing Lair for the first time after having Molten Core on farm status. It was very tough and led to a lot of disatisfaction and acrimony in the guild with members leaving and lots of problems. I know full well that hardship and the pain that is felt when learning becomes very “unfun”.

    But what does BWL have to do with the obsession with numbers? Granted, Vaelastraz required a high amount of fire resistance, but the difficulty in the rest was not due to numbers, it was due to tactics required. Razorgore was the first raid encounter where every member was required to stay alert and contribute. Broodlord had rotations, the 3 drakes had a sequence that you had to follow..

    And then there’s Chromaggus and Nefarian, which were vilified because they did have random elements that you had to adapt to. People even stopped raiding for the remainder of the week if they got an unfavorable breath combination. That random pick of abilities was something that Blizzard recycled from Diablo II, btw. Certain combinations of abilities resulted in a too easy boss, some were okay and some meant instant death. Like an Iron Maiden curse for a melee character or the equal-opportunity killer: MultiShot Lightning Enhanced. From a developer’s perspective, settling with a predictable but okay encounter instead of a random too easy/too hard encounter probably seemed like a worthwhile tradeoff.

  14. Dynamic difficulty scaling would indeed be a nice system.

    As for the “learn not to go there” death-by-big-mob scenario, aye, that’s a valuable lesson, but the early MMO harsh death penalties (loss of XP, loss of loot, high repair costs, whatever) would make such a lesson overly painful. That’s what I was getting at there. It’s not so much that lessons need to be dodged, it’s that the scale of punishment needs to be something that doesn’t scare people off, or make them leave in frustration.

    Also, you’re right, the “software toy” sandbox is where some designs have gone. That’s the basic core of Second Life. There does need to be a “game” involved to give people some metrics for measuring progress, if that’s something important.

    Again pointing to Raph, he’s commented that people naturally look for the patterns in the system, and deconstruct the “game” into rote behaviors that always work, so as to maximize their reward/time ratio. Humans are good at patterns, but the more “patterned” the system gets, the more boring it can be perceived. We like patterns, but we like them prettified and slightly hidden.

    Shalkis, good point about the potential for severe conditions with randomized scenarios. Perhaps the best thing there would be some sort of “bounded chaos” system where there’s a bit of randomness in the encounter, but within certain parameters that don’t allow for blowouts on either side.

    As for how the highly scripted/choreographed encounters work with the number obsession, it’s a step up in association. It’s the “pattern” theory that I alluded to above. Players look for the patterns, for the “known” variables, in order to make success more likely. It’s risk management. (The ego-stroking aspects of the social dynamic is another topic.) Patterns, numbers, probabilities, it’s all part of the way that players try to understand the game, and more importantly, try to beat the game.

    That’s perhaps the biggest subtle undercurrent that affects MMOs, looking at the player base who transitioned from single player RPGs. MMOs cannot be beaten, they must be lived. That’s the nature of a “service economy” that the sub model prompts; the player/provider relationship isn’t that of a consumer/producer, it’s that of a subscriber/server. It’s a very different dynamic.

    For games specifically, single player games can almost always be beaten, the storyline finished. The gaming treadmill that MMOs have adopted as their core philosophy just doesn’t have an end. They can’t, if the sub model is to be maintained. Mechanics that promote “beating the game” or “figuring out the system” are dangerously double edged. People need to know how your game world operates, to be able to play in it, but if it’s too rigid and predictable, there’s little point in playing in the first place. It’s a purely Pavlovian exercise at that point. Some folks like that, but once the emperor’s new clothes wear out, the game falls into rote, boring territory. Random loot drops stretch the content a bit more, but it doesn’t really disguise the basic repetitive nature of the content.

    Short story long, some predictability is good, but too much or too little is bad. It’s a fine balance.

  15. But what does BWL have to do with the obsession with numbers?

    I’m not saying it has anything to do with numbers directly. I was just responding to Tesh who was responding to a statement I made calling for more dynamic encounters which was in response to another statement of his responding to a statement I made in my original article about how some players love to deconstruct encounters.

    Obviously we’ve taken a few interesting tangents from the original topic. :)

  16. Hi Cambios.

    Your comments got trapped by my spam filter called Akismet. I’m not sure why but I retrieved it. Hopefully this won’t happen again. My apologies for this. Thanks for your insightful comments!

    -Wolfshead

  17. Cam, Akismet catches your comments on my blog, too. I think it’s because you put a link to your site in your comments. So far, though, I’ve been able to rescue them all. ;)

    Reading your comment reminded me of my utter contempt for the “play to win” mentality. Sirlin makes a few good points, but in the end, I think it’s precisely that Type A Killer/Achiever player that kills games from the inside. It’s especially egregious in MMOs (or POWs), where the inevitable internet jerks not only ruin the gameplay for others, but they have the potential to warp the design focus and metagame to the point where the online world suffers for it.

  18. Yes, how dare those Killer/Achievers warp game design to fit their playstyle. I’m sure that if Socializers/Explorers were in charge and warped game design to fit their playstyle, it would all be better. Viva la Revolution!

    One is not necessarily better than the other, but it’s hard to bow to one direction and not show your behind to the other. But I do think that some developers ought to at least try to please everyone. After all, it might be worthwhile to extract the full benefit from the network effect. Who knows, they even might expand the market by several orders of magnitude, leaving breathing room for several other games that specialize in pleasing different types of players.

  19. The obsession about instant gratification reaching the endgame,and bypassing story,exploration and social interaction shows in the real world as well.Im an old school D&D gamer and LOTRO lifer.I like sci-fi more than fantasy but D&D made a huge impact on me.I tried all the fantasy MMOs including heavyweight WoW and they all dont appeal to me-except for LOTRO.It took me 8 months to get to level 50 before the expansion.I still have tons to do without MoM.My kin is maxed level thanks to a few good friends and the wife.:D There is no reason for me to rush out and get uber gear or max out since there will always be someone out there whos better than you.So why obsess about?
    Throughout LOTRO since beta,you know how many people ive recruited not counting real world friends?One.And he was obsessed with making it to level 20 without dying.He died at 18 ,deleted his toon and started again,after the wife crafted a set of armor for him.Im not interested in such people.They are shallow and would probably stab anyone in the back to make a buck.
    Some are already complaining about MoM.These are the same folk who warped through to level 50 after 2 months,after whining the whole way,and have returned.Ive stayed away from Moria until these jackels leave and go on to other games.Im in no hurry.I bought the lifetime account because i knew the economy was going to tank and would have to make a choice.I wisely chose correctly.
    I dont choose an MMO for popularity ,numbers,or uber gear.Thats pretty darn shallow and transparent if you ask me.
    However there still are some who are cool cats out there.I was in the Moors just last night and a warleader took charge of the group and lead it quite well and i made sure he knew it.There are gems in the rough.You just need to know how to spot them and make sure they hear you when you play with them.
    (sorry about it being so LOTRO specific but i followed this link from their forums :D)
    RedCloudwulf

  20. “Level 70 is better then level 1, 100 DPS is better then 90 DPS, 50 armor is better then 40 armor and so on”

    The word is “than”, not “then”…”THAN”!!!

  21. The main reason I have always enjoyed MMO’s is for customization purposes. I have always enjoyed the creating a character portion of the games, and the people I an communication with as my created character.

    The “old” SWG was the last game IMO to have a good part of its nature about lore and interaction. Yes the combat system didn’t fit in to the Star wars theme and wasn’t exactly starwarsy as it was put but the community in the Cantinas for example broke all that up. The Roleplaying Bounty hunters chasing down Player Bounties etc. Little things like that made the game.

    The old style pen n paper D&D was good because if you didnt use your imagination to creature the adventure in your head, there was no point in playing the game atall. Your imagination was the fore front of the game and the math that accompanied it was in the back seat.

    The problem is, as long as the game is making money the devs don’t want/care about changing it.

  22. Pingback: Who Killed Role-Playing in MMOs? | Wolfshead Online

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