I want to pick apples.
Or, more accurately, I want my World of Warcraft Night Elf to be able to pick apples.
I’ve been pondering MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) design of late, with the ever-present WoW as a sort of modern prototype for the genre. Yes, it’s sort of the second coming of Everquest; no, it’s not the only MMO out there; yes, it’s the 800 pound gorilla, much like EA is in the game publishing arena. Talk of MMO design uses WoW as a sort of shared language and reference point, since it’s everywhere. It’s also currently free to play for ten days (albeit on a somewhat limited basis), so most people with interest can pick it up and try it out. (Earlier in its life, that wasn’t the case.)
If you haven’t tried it out, some of the context here may be a bit obscure, but I mostly bring up WoW (or any other game, really) as an example of a general game design principle that I want to write about. So… yeah. Apple picking.
In WoW, the player controls an avatar character from a third person view. This avatar is a single game entity that acts as the player’s persona in the game world. These avatars come in different races, genders and “classes”, which broadly define their position and function in the world. (Actually, gender is purely aesthetic, as far as I know.) Most avatars have health and “mana” meters. (A few do not have mana, and some have alternate or additional bars, specific to their class.) As might be expected, that health is even tracked means that there are ways for it to fluctuate up and down. Big, bad critters out in the wide, wild world can attack the avatar, and cause them to lose health. Avatars regenerate health naturally over time, or can drink potions or eat food to regenerate. There’s the apple.
Apples are one of the edible items that can be acquired in the game. Yet… I’ve never seen an apple tree in the game world. Now, to be fair, I’ve not been everywhere in the game. Still, I’ve been in areas where vendor characters sell apples… and I still don’t see any trees. I’ve been to farms, and there’s nary a fruit tree in sight. (No, not all farms have fruit trees, but again, the vendor has them… so where do they come from?)
Avatars can kill critters and take stuff off of their carcasses. That’s the prime source of “loot” that drives the relentless acquisition that is one aspect of the addictiveness of the game. Sometimes you can “loot” (yay for verbifying words!) apples from random critters. Where do they get them? (And why are they in edible condition? Hrm…) Never mind the two handed axe that the rabid squirrel had tucked away in its cheek pouch… why is that apple in pristine condition?
Alternatively, there are “professions” in WoW that allow the avatar to gather stuff from the world, to be sold or used to create other items. You can gather skins and pelts from slain beasties, herbs from clusters of plants here and there, and ore and gems via mining rock nodes. You can even go fishing and cook the fish, or cook a smattering of other meats from critter kills. Yet… amidst all of this acquisitive foraging, there doesn’t seem to be a way to gather apples. You can’t milk a cow, either, or fill a canteen with fresh spring water. (Never mind that I don’t really want to milk a cow.)
Now, in and of itself, that’s not really a huge deal, since pretty early on, players are trained to consider edibles and drinkables to be commodities. You have whole “stacks” of spring water containers. Once they are used, the container itself is gone, and you’ve got to get some more somehow. Again, there’s nothing earth shattering about such an abstraction; players understand that these are items to use and move on to actually playing the game. I’m not really nitpicking the game out of a sense of criticism, since it plays perfectly well as it is. I’m just looking at a little of why such design decisions might be made.
Still… I want to pick apples. This is less a critique of the existing design of WoW, and more a general observation. Many MMORPG (Role Playing Game) players seem to want what they call “virtual worlds”, chock full of interaction and reaction. They want to be able to burn down the village that spurned their ugly orcish face. They want to build a home on the outskirts of Darnassus. They want to carve their love’s initials in the big walnut tree outside of the Wailing Pond. They want to feel like their actions have a real, lasting impact on the game world. (These impulses are discussed at length on occasion in the Wolfshead blog, linked over in my “blogroll”.) It’s an extension of why people here in the real world carve initials into trees; humans have this innate desire to be recognized, to try to show the world that they existed; that they lived, loved, hated, worked, thought, acted and reacted. That human condition has been fodder for many tragic apocalypse stories and other minor pessimistic explorations of the perceived futility of life.
Still, it’s not an unreasonable desire to have that sort of impact on a game world. That was one of the initial promises of an online persistent world even as far back as the text MUD (Multi User Dungeon) days. It’s an impulse borne of the pen and paper RPGs that were popularized by Dungeons and Dragons. People like to be the hero, to leave their mark on the world or each other. In a world where all too often, real life is an exercise in tedium and impotence, players love the chance to escape to a fantasy where they can make a difference. It’s even better if they can look cool doing it.
So… apples. In a tabletop pen and paper RPG, the game is primarily limited by rulesets and imagination. They are very flexible and open-ended. Players can usually pick apples if there are apple trees nearby in the imaginary world. Sometimes those trees aren’t even “there” until “noticed”; the Game Master (the host of the gaming session, a person pretty much in control of the world and everything in it but the players’ characters) may mention the trees, or a player might ask “are there apple trees around here?”… at which point the GM imagines them into existence and says “yes, they are fifteen yards to your right, laden with big, ripe apples”. That flexibility is the whole point of a Role Playing Game. Players are playing roles in an imaginary world, and the more fleshed out that world is, the deeper the immersion, and the more fulfilling the experience. Generally.
When an RPG experience is brought into the computer, the “combat” segment of the game (typically a number-heavy experience that takes a ton of time on pen and paper) is vastly streamlined because computers are built for calculation. They love to crunch numbers. At the same time, they are also inherently limited because of a lack of imagination. Computers don’t really “think” the way humans do. In making a computer or console RPG, the “imagination” has to be left up to the game developers and the players. Some games lean to the “sandbox” side of the scale, where the players do most of the work, and the devs just provide a toolset and a (naturally limited) world. Some lean to the heavily scripted and tightly controlled game world defined by the devs, and the players are little more than glorified remote controls, affecting the pacing of the story by their actions, but not the story itself. Western games tend to be sandboxish, and Eastern games tend to be the “semi-interactive movie” type. Yes, it’s a gross generalization, but it’s the general trend. Neither game style is inherently superior, just different, with unique limitations and capabilities.
Point is, neither game has apples in it unless the devs specifically put them in there long before the player gets to them. The computer generally can’t magic up trees if the player inputs some sort of [/are there apple trees?] forage command. That’s just an inherent limitation of the content in a computer game. That’s why we call them “static” worlds. There have been moves to make game worlds “dynamic” and/or “heuristic”, which allow for the world to change and fluctuate, either by itself or incorporating the input of players. Trouble is, dynamics and heuristics (“alterable” and “progressive” or “learning”, respectively) are notoriously hard to model properly and efficiently. Yes, computer engineers can model soil erosion with some generalized formulas (as Oblivion famously advertised), but what place does that really have in a game?
And there it all comes back to apples. What exactly is the threshold for games, and specifically MMOs? (Since MMOs have a different nature as a persistent online world with many, many inputs, as opposed to a single player game. I’ll dig into that a bit more later.) Should devs make apple trees if there are apples in the world? Should players be able to take apples from said trees? Should there be a skill developed primarily for doing so, like Herbalism and Mining in WoW, or should it just be something that anyone can do, like opening a box? (Really, how hard is it to pick weeds or pick an apple?) How much of the world should be freeform and interactive, and how much should be controlled via game mechanics? What’s the saturation point where the technology just literally can’t keep up with the demand for interaction with the world? Specific to MMOs, what’s the threshold where making a world interactive starts to impinge on the play experience of other players? (Being allowed to burn down a village can have some repercussions on other players.) How do you, as a designer, make a world that feels dynamic and interesting without really letting things go to the point where the inevitable jerk players can ruin another player’s experience?
Is asking for an apple tree to harvest setting foot on the slippery slope of technological and interactive overindulgence, a precursor to an unsustainable micromanaged (or unmanageable thanks to dynamics) game world? To me, it just makes sense to have a tree there that I can grab an apple from as I walk by if there are apples in the game. Of course, this totally ignores the moral and ethical/legal implications that are part of living out here in the real world. I’ll dig into that later. This particular wall of text is mostly concerned with the game design aspects of technological feasibility, player/dev desirability, and ultimately, the fun factor. Would the game world be more fun for me if I could pick apples? Sure it would… but is it worth the developer time and assets for such a relatively miniscule payoff?
I’m not really convinced either way. I’ve worked in games, and I have a healthy respect for the dev cycle, schedules, tech limitations, budgets and “real life”… all of which get in the way of even the most humble of dreams. Game designers want this sort of crazy cool superworld just as much as players, perhaps even more so. They simply have to be the ones to deal with making it happen, and the reality isn’t quite as bubbly as the imagination. Aside from limitations on production, there are very real design considerations, like the potential for griefing and catastrophic meltdown that can come with letting the players have too much influence on the world. Some boundaries are necessary for the game world to work, especially in a “wild west” internet world, where anonymity and stupidity reinforce each other.
I don’t really have answers on this, which is why I ask a lot of questions. I know how I’d answer some of them, and others I’m just not sure on. I welcome other takes on these concerns, partially out of interest, partially out of an irrepressible desire to make games better. They have a lot of potential, but the ADHD GTA mentality of the industry at present is content to scrape the gutter of the art form, instead of reach for the mountaintops.
P.S. Apologies for the huge essay on this one. It’s a bit of a setup for later discussions, which should be able to be smaller once the framework is established.