Thursday, March 08, 2007

A Brief History of Bloody-Mindedness & Game Design

Once upon a time, someone invented computer games. Whether it's chess, or pong, or asteroids, or whatever you want to pick as your first computer game (but not space war) the one thing all the original computer games (but not space war) had in common was that you played against the computer. In order to keep the game interesting for stronger players, the game would get harder as you "progressed" (either it got better after you completed a level or you could simply pick a difficulty level).

Fast forward a few years and a new concept was introduced to computer games: content. Suddenly, instead of the game's content being essentially fixed and the speed, number of targets, and/or computer player's reaction speed (or in chess games, depth and quality of look ahead) being raised, games had content. Level 2 might look different from level 1.

Content-based games quickly outstripped content-free faster, faster, more, more games in popularity and market penetration. Perhaps the last big gasp of the old-school games was Tetris, while the first mighty flash of content-based games was MYST (a game that millions of people who didn't play games played).

All of this sets aside player vs. player games (such as Spacewar, DOOM, etc.) because human opponents can be endlessly challenging (well, so far). Humans are bloody-minded as players, but I'm discussing bloody-mindedness in game design.

Why Be Bloody-Minded?

It turns out that the more vivid the content and the more responsive the game world, the more people seem to like the game. It also turns out that the more vivid the game world and the more responsive the game, the more expensive the game is to develop. All those graphics, animations, and special case pieces of scripting cost money to think up, design, implement, debug, and then support.

So, therefore, it makes sense to make maximum use of all the vivid, responsive content you developed. Why produce gorgeous graphics and animation that folks will only see once? Solution: stick it in a really difficult part of the game the player will have to repeat again and again and again.

And, why produce vivid, responsive content players won't see at all? Solution: make your content as linear as possible, forcing players down a "tunnel of fun".

And the end result? Extremely vivid and interactive games that are mind-numbingly repetitive and linear. (You may think I'm describing your favorite game in particular, but guess what -- that includes pretty much every triple-A title out there.)

There's actually a third, and far more insidious, reason for bloody-mindedness that I haven't gotten to, but it has its roots in all that boring history I started off with. It's elitism. Almost everyone in the game design business is really good at playing games. And really good players know that what makes them cool, what makes up for their inability to form social relationships outside cyberspace, is their ability to play Q*bert until they get bored, or clock Time Pilot, or beat anyone in Virtua Fighter 5 as anyone. So there's an inherent belief among many game designers that unless you're this tall you don't get to go on the fun rides.

That's right, you may pay Blizzard $500 for a copy of WoW and three years of subscription fees, but you don't get to see the Twin Emperors or Patchwerk or whatever unless you go through a certain (large) amount of tedium and pain.

Enter the MMORPG*

* Massive Money-making Online Role-Playing Game

All three kinds of bloody-mindedness are particularly prevalent in MMORPGs. You can actually see it evolve within the design teams. They start out designing stuff quite idealistically:

"Look, this dungeon is a bit non-linear and entertaining rather than really bloody-minded."

"Oh dear, folks didn't spend six months doing it over and over, we mustn't make that mistake again."

"If we're going to write a really cool fight script, it's vital that everyone has to watch it fifty times."

This is because all three reasons are strongly sharpened. The economic arguments are stronger because unlike with single player games you want to keep people playing for as long as possible and develop as little content as possible. The elitism issues are magnified because a significant and vocal proportion of your player base hates their real lives and seeks solace in the game world where their entire sense of self value is determined by what they've seen and done (and looted) in the game world that most other people have not.

As a final note. A certain amount of bloody-mindedness is a good thing. If it were easy to see all the content in a game, no-one would bother. Difficulty makes a game rewarding -- to a point. Even tedium and repetition can make an achievement rewarding -- to a point. I doubt that any MMORPG player will disagree that MMORPGs have gone beyond this point in the latter department.

Can Anything Be Done? Should Anything Be Done?

The beauty of MMORPGs is that the economics of the game allow designers to spend much more time building content (and gameplay) for those games (from an individual player's perspective) than single player games. Oblivion, say, has a stupendous amount of content, but it pales in comparison to World of Warcraft. Of course, most people play Oblivion for a few weeks and then, happy they've "finished" it, move on to something else.

So, MMORPGs have a lot more content than single player games because they make a lot more money (when they don't fail miserably). But, single players games give you a lot more content per hour played than MMORPGs. One solution is to play single player games. But single player games have plenty of tedium and bloody-mindedness in them too. How much time spent playing, say, a typical Final Fantasy game is spent dealing with interesting new content.

Solution: Competition

Blizzard, right now, is raking in cash. I very much doubt that they increase content development expenditure based on their revenue; they just treat their player base as a cash cow and enjoy themselves. Every new player is (aside from server/bandwidth costs) pure profit.

My view of every MMORPG out there is that it's woefully short of engaging content relative to the amount of time players are spending in it, and that the "hamburger's helper" being used to keep the players playing is a sordid concoction of tedium, repetition, and general bloody-mindedness. Build more content and you can ease off on the tedium, repetition, and bloody-mindedness. But the only way we'll see this happen is if (a) Blizzard suddenly decides, out of a sense of idealism, that they should spend more money building content for players they already have, or (b) credible competitors emerge who don't take their players so much for granted.

Solution: Hire Your Customer

One of the standard "brilliant ideas" when I was in the Management Consulting biz was "hire your customer". You see it everywhere, from "self-service" fuel pumps to "self-service" ticket collection at airports. (If it weren't for 9/11, you'd be checking in your own luggage too.)

It's clear that the ultimate source of engaging content in games is other human beings, but aside from player vs. player combat, and a few games with scenario design tools, no-one has much attempted to leverage the creativity of other players into games. There are obvious problems: the first thing I did with the Neverwinter Nights "Aurora" toolset (which lets you build game content) was create a "dungeon" consisting of a guy who would give you any amount of money or experience and a small dungeon full of superbly equipped enemies to kill and loot. This only spoils my own fun, but imagine if an MMORPG world allowed such things to be added by players.

The big question then is how to allow players to create challenges for each other in a relatively controlled way that allows the universe to constantly grow more interesting without anything getting too out of control.

I won't go into it in detail here, but I think the solution is, in essence, something like Slashdot or Wikipedia. Everyone can produce content. Everyone can moderate. If a game engine like NeverWinter Nights allowed you to jump from server to server you could build a complete MMORPG universe without requiring a single gigantic server farm and incredibly costly infrastructure.

Hey, it's an idea.

Solution: Emergent Behavior

Will Wright's Spore is an attempt to build a dynamic-ish universe around players' decisions, employing a "fractal" combination of random number generators and player design choices to create a complex, dynamic sandbox. Of course, the game never seems to ship, which tends to imply that while all the algorithms and technology are endlessly cool and fascinating, there's not much of a game there yet. (I played this game before, when it was called SimEarth. Sure, it wasn't quite so elaborate, but it was the same concept with 2d graphics ... and it also didn't work well as a game.)

Emergent behavior is something that game designers need to allow for but not surrender to, and be alert for and willing to exploit. For example, the designers of EverQuest added the "Bazaar" in response to behavior they had seen emerge in the general chat channels. (In contrast, Blizzard essentially implemented eBay inside World of Warcraft. This makes for an efficient market, but not so good game atmosphere.) Many of the features of MMORPGs are essentially codified examples of emergent behavior.

Let me give some simple examples of how emergent behavior could be added to WoW.

Imagine that instead of being quite expensive clickable items, horses were quite cheap (say 1g) but they didn't go in your inventory. They were, essentially, NPCs. If you have the skill you can mount a horse, ride it around, and unmount it. If the horse is "owned" by a given player, it becomes "unowned" if left untended and not "tied" to a hitching post. Unowned horses can be attacked by predators, or stolen. After a while they just disappear (starve or wander off). If you pick up an "unowned" horse you are flagged for PvP (and can be attacked by either side). We just got a ton of emergent behavior -- folks may have to leave people to guard their horses outside dungeons. Players can make money watching horses for people. And, just incidentally, horses can no longer be conjured out of thin air after swimming across an ocean or teleporting into town.

Imagine that instead of simply respawning in place some creatures appear logically from some place and move to their "location" along some reasonable path. For example, you might have a series of "trog camps" in Loch Modan, and instead of their just popping into place in each camp, they appear from the Evil Warlock's spawning cave and then wander from camp to camp until all the camps are full. Then the warlock spawns a big monster that rampages about until killed by guards or players. Now, the order in which you kill things matters, folks doing something in place A affects folks doing something else in place B. The whole area becomes a lot more interesting. Oh, and just incidentally, mobs are no longer "popping" out of thin air.

(Actually, I suggested this as feedback to Verant back before it became Sony Online Entertainment. Apparently, MMORPG designers have decided that mob spawning is just the way things are. Ugh.)

Summing Up

Bloody-mindedness manifests itself in games as repetition, tedium, linearity and gratuitous difficulty. It's caused by the economics of game development and elitist attitudes among both game developers and hardcore players to the detriment of pretty much everyone else. Potential solutions exist, but they're either actually difficult (consider Spore), assumed to be difficult, or simply ignored because designers are too lazy and the existing approach is "good enough". In the end, unless players rebel against repetition, tedium, linearity, and gratuitous difficulty, they'll just get more of the same.