BBB wrote a great post that deftly touches on a number of aspects to the modern world of WoW, and how it has changed from the Burning Crusade days. I’d suggest a quick read over here:
I love physics. Quantum physics are especially interesting, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle drives a lot of weirdness. One of the most interesting thought experiments based on the theory is the plight of Schrodinger’s Cat. More than once, I’ve wondered what application this might have to games. Much of it comes back to the concept of predictability, and just how much of it we actually want.
BBB mentions the random recipe drops that categorized high end crafting in preWrath WoW. High end crafters would have to root around in endgame raids, hoping for rare recipes in the loot that would allow them to grind their crafting skill to a higher level where they could search for even rarer recipes in even meaner raid zones. These days high end recipes are apparently available via a token interface, so acquisition is less a function of hitting the recipe jackpot and more a function of putting in your time. I actually like the change, since it makes the game less frustrating. (At the cost of underlining the grind a bit more… jackpot mechanisms actually tend to be more grindy than pure work=reward mechanics, but they appear to be less so because of the occasions where the jackpot puts people ahead of the average.)
Short story long, I like the predictability inherent in such a scheme. I don’t like the idea of raid reruns for recipes, especially when the drop rate is abysmally low. Sure, it can feel “special” to be one of the blessed few who has the coveted recipe (since everyone else is still grinding for it, pulling the arm of the slot machine), but the WoW paradigm is already “time=progress”, so the new method is not only more consistent with the existing design but also less frustrating for players. That’s a good thing.
But… what of all the fuss for unpredictability and change that we see on occasion? I’ve argued for some malleability in the game world before, and I still think that it would be a good thing… but not all the time.
There are two ends to my theoretical spectrum of game predictability: On the one end, we have the perfectly predictable game, one that GameFAQs, Brady and Prima can map out to the second. Insert coin, get reward. Play through to the cutscenes, see the scripted story, live out a happy little pellet-eating life, Dinging away our conditioned reflexes.
On the other end is Schrodinger’s Cat. The game is a black box finite state machine, extraordinarily influenced by player actions. It’s not really random, as we are dealing with finite resources and the need to channel players through certain mechanical or narrative chokepoints to make it a game rather than a sandbox (a toy). Still, to the player, the state of the game is unknown at the beginning, and the play and story change depending on choices the player makes. The only way to predict what will happen is to do the same thing every playthrough. If there are sufficient branching opportunities and even some bounded random elements, even choosing the same obvious things (like conversation states) can lead to different game experiences. A theoretical FAQ for a game like this would resemble this sort of thing:
from Star Trek Voyager’s “Year of Hell”, and would be a matrix of possibilities, rather than a gaming equivalent of a script.
Players would be uncertain of what would come next in the game, outside of some very general predictions like “that monster will eat me if I don’t kill it”. In other words, the game would be a bit more like real life.
The designer in me relishes this sort of design, as it could boost the replay value significantly, and it would make for very personalized experiences. Games would once again be something to talk about and share experiences about, because there would be a shared framework, but potentially radically different details. It would be a challenge to make the game interesting but functional, with great storylines but a sense of control and consequence. Making such a game unbreakable would also be interesting; I would never want the player to get to a point where their choices would make the game unplayable. Difficult, I don’t mind, but literally unplayable would be troublesome. (Which might mean redundancies and wheels within wheels to keep the narrative train from derailing, but still, it’s doable.)
The gamer in me is… ambivalent. On the one hand, games like this would approach the sort of crazy unpredictability that can make life interesting, like the Fable games famously aimed for. On the other hand, I play games to get away from the unpredictability that makes life annoying.
I suppose that there’s a market for both, ultimately. Still, in a world of WoWHead and GameFAQs, a freeform game that actually offers consequences for choices and no “golden path” to success would be a very different animal. Too different to be more than a niche title, perhaps, but at the same time, maybe a harbinger of things to come. In the end, it seems as though players want just enough unpredictability to be interesting, but enough predictability to avoid frustration. Finding that sweet spot can be difficult. I do think there is design space and market space for a game that is closer to the Heisenberg quantum storytelling idea than what we currently have available, though.