Tuesday, October 26, 2010

MMOs and Unethical Game Design

In a talk at an indie developer conference a year or two ago Jonathon Blow (creator of Braid) described the design philosophy of the MMO genre, "unethical". His reasoning was that the games were built on simple, monotonous game mechanics that the player engages in hundreds or thousands of times and to hide this, MMOs create a trail of bread crumbs to entice the player to continue. Keep playing, here's a new level and ability. Keep playing, here's a new sword. Keep playing, here's a new area to explore... and so on.

Now one could argue that most games have similar designs. Here's a new gun in this FPS. You've unlocked new tracks in this racing game. Here's a new level and ability in this RPG (although this one has a definitive end). So what explains this discrepancy? Well the end i just mentioned in RPGs may have something to do with it. So may the complexity of the base mechanics of the game. A good example is Bayonetta. I'm a couple levels from the end of the game and every time a fight ends, I'm still a little befuddled as to what happened, and part of that is what keeps me playing (It's what i refer to as a 'I have a smile on my face and i don't know why' experience). I think ultimately what distinguishes the way an MMO keeps players playing with its trail is a sense of immediate gratification.

For my examples in the MMO space i will be referring to World of Warcraft (WoW) mostly, as that has been my main MMO experience. In WoW, when you begin, the levels come at you fast. In fact, when you first begin any MMO, everything is overwhelming. Playing from levels 1 - 10 is meant to be fast and easy, mainly to entice the player to continue playing. You learn the basics of the class you've chosen, have started some quests, and are beginning to get into the story if you're so inclined (at least in WoW I've found that following the game's narrative rests solely on the player's initiative). You've started exploring the world and especially once you leave your starting area, the scope of the playable world can be quite awe inspiring.

The immediate gratification starts to wain a little around level 30. Much of the world is open to you, you've experienced most of the quest variety until you reach the expansions, and you've encountered both good and bad experiences with other players. What makes someone continue at this point now that the crumbs are further apart? It's the time you've put into your character. You've grown attached to him or her. You may be in a guild and now have a group of people you play with. You've levelled up some professions and are playing the auction house. You enjoy queuing for dungeons or the battlegrounds.

Basically, the simple crumb trail you were following around levels 1 - 10 has split off into multiple crumb trails. Not only that, but you now have roots in the world. MMOs are after all a social game, and whether that's just getting attached to your character or being part of a larger community, there's a reason for many players to stick around (and of course there are those who just create another character and experience the early portion of the game all over again).

So yes, the mechanics and design choices that MMOs are founded on can certainly be seen as unethical (probably the stickiest part of this argument is having to pay monthly for such an experience), but considering the scope of the game space, the choice of play (even if it is all based on the same mechanics), and definitely the social aspect (which lends itself more to time spent in the game than the game itself), the MMO has certainly shown its strengths, its weaknesses, and earned its place amongst the rest of the videogame genres.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On walkthroughs, strategy guides, and FAQs

Is completing a videogame the ultimate goal of said videogame? If this is true, does this warrant the use of outside assistance when the player gets stuck?

This can be a tricky issue. Gamers can be very elitist, and the thought of using help to complete a videogame can be met with scorn among your peers. I myself have taken many changing stances on the use of strategy guides and FAQs over the years, and i expect that view to change again in the years to come.

They've been around in one form or another for a while. Let's face it, some games are hard. Games have been hard since the medium was created. Out of those who had a NES, who used the Konami code in Contra? Who bought a Game Genie to enable infinite energy, lives, or the ability to warp levels in your games? When Final Fantasy came out, i had my parents buy the Nintendo Power strategy guide along with it. Since then, the walkthroughs have continued, and now thanks to the internet (and primarily www.gamefaqs.com), help to get you through your game is easier than ever.

There however was a period of my life when i was anti-FAQ. Why should i ruin the experience for myself by following a step by step guide through Xenogears? Why does my room-mate need a strategy guide to play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City? Well, eventually i did get stuck on bosses in Xenogears, and looked up hints on how to pass them. As for my roommate, his explanation was that he would never play through Vice City again so wanted to explore all the secrets and play every mission the first time through.

I think now more than ever, walkthroughs are linked to game flow. They've always been like that, it's just that flow is a newish concept. If you get stuck in the game, flow is impeded, therefore looking up the solution whether in a store bought book, or online will keep flow going. On the other hand, following a step by step walkthrough through a game might suck the fun and wonder out of the experience, and once again flow is ruined. It's all about finding that balance.

These days my use of FAQs is dictated by genre. Action games, sandbox games, action-adventures, platformers... these games are all about what happens from moment to moment. Looking down at a book or at your monitor breaks the immersion of what these games are all about. On the other hand, Adventure games, and RPGs have a slower pace. It's also very easy to become stuck in these genres. I use walkthroughs for them as a road map through the experience. There are of course exceptions (Mass Effect with its action based combat and speedy pace needed no guide to complete).

If completing the videogame is your goal, then anything that gets you there should be fair game. If however you're playing for fun, exploration, a challenge, or satisfaction, the use of walkthroughs, strategy guides, and FAQs can stand in the way of these goals. In the end, you bought the videogame, you treat the experience the way that makes the most sense to you, and if you have to look at a guide to enjoy your game, so be it.