Posts Tagged ‘agency’

Do What You Want, OKGO

Why are so many gamers content to just do as they are told?  Who exactly is to blame for not exploring the world of an MMO?  (Which is, after all, still a game, not a pure world simulator, for better or worse.)  Why, in one of the most potentially interactive entertainment mediums, are games so constrained or controlled, and so many “consumers” still so passive?

Outside of the games themselves, why do players offer critique, punditry or backseat driving without seeking to understand before demanding to be understood?  I guess it’s always just easier to blame the other guy.

Why do devs cater to player trends?  Might I suggest that at least some of them still want to make money?  That may be a tough question: make a game specifically to make money, or make the game you want to make and try to market it?

There’s a place for products that are built from a singular vision and that are uncompromising in how they approach it, counting on their labor of love to find the right audience instead of opening the tent doors to all the camels.  I suspect everyone has their pet product that might fit this mold.  I hope we never lose that corner of the game industry.  (Though it is changing thanks to budgets and tools.)

but it’s still an ecosystem of niches, not a way to survive the mainstream.  There’s gold in them thar hills, but it’s risky business.  The less risky mainstream might stumble onto a gem here and there, but by its nature, it’s more about keeping that shareholder cash flowing, and that means you can’t rock the boat much.

Oh, and challenge is still a variable, completely dependent on the perception of the player.  Too many players (and devs) don’t understand that.  There is no golden equation that collapses the player skill distribution curve into the Perfect Game.  Even player-driven variables (difficulty settings, for one) can’t possibly cover all possible players.

So what do you do?  You make the game you want to make, and you play the games you want to play.

…and let others do the same.  In a market that is ever more digitally distributed, there’s room for the mid-size games with modest scope and other assorted indie products (including hardware, apparently, which is fascinating).  The niches can work… but it may not always be easy.  They can’t try to be AAA games (barely interactive movies), they have to embrace the niche and, well… do their own thing.

As one author noted…

 Isn’t the point of an RPG — MMO or otherwise — to let me roleplay what I choose?

Not every game is one of those RPG things, but games from Puerto Rico (an interesting example as there are no dice rolls and very little mechanical randomization; the most important random elements are the other players) to Chess to Rook to StarCraft rely on player choice. Players need to make choices (not just solve problems), and devs need to let them… even if that means letting them choose not to play their game because it’s too different.  We all need to be confident in our choices and not worry so much about catering to anyone else.  I think we get better games and better gamers that way.

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Munchkins are creepy.

They dress in absurdly colored gear (where everyone of equal rank and function looks the same), move in herds, wear their ridiculous guild membership like thugs, celebrate boss kills with silly dances, and their faith in the Yellow Brick Road as the One True Path to enlightenment borders on bizarre.

Oh, and their singing is like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Urgle.

But what of this “Yellow Brick Road” thing?

Yellow Brick Road

Questeth this way, braveth heros!*

*Brick road photograph from CGTextures.com, yellow “paint” added by Tesh

It leads to a Wizard of some sort, right?  The guy with all the answers?  Big floating, disembodied head with the power to grant wishes?  Except, oh, wait.  There’s this curtain involved.  And some dude with machines pulling off an elaborate authority scam.

And whaddayaknow… in the end, he says that the Scarecrow’s brain, the Lion’s courage and Tin Man’s heart were there from the start, developed through the journey they shared with a girl who only wanted to get home to the people she loved.

Maybe, just maybe… it’s the people and the journey after all.

Dorothy found her friends when she ventured from the path.  Her friends developed their own worth when they went even further off the path to save Dorothy.  The Yellow Brick Road ultimately took them somewhere they didn’t even need to go.

Maybe playing a game is more than just being passively entertained.  It certainly seems to me that the whole point of playing a game instead of watching a movie is to be an active participant, making decisions and solving problems.  (Note:  devs and players both have to take part in this.)

Maybe that road not taken really is the best road.  It makes all the difference when we choose to be agents of our own destiny instead of just following the well-trodden path.

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Whee, another collection of links!  Yes, I feel lazy because of it, but there’s just so much going on that I wanted to highlight.  Plenty of good discussions going on lately in game design.

Eric poked the beehive thisaway:

Class vs. Open Skill Systems

I don’t care for his tone.  I don’t agree with his assertions, either about players or designers.  It’s worth reading, though.

Naturally, others have responded.

Ysharros: Classless is a pain in the assless

Jason: The Skills of EVE

Psychochild: Stay Classy

The Rampant Coyote: Defending the Lack of Class

I find myself largely agreeing with Brian (Psychochild).  In fact, I wrote about a hybrid system before:

Autopilot Character Development

Similarly, Big Bear Butt has taken a stab at the trinity of WoW combat roles, spurring some good discussion about where things might go if we open up a little.  It’s a fantastic article that echoes a lot of my own thoughts on the matter:

The Unholy Trinity

It’s no secret to anyone who reads around here for much that I’m a firm believer in agency for gamers.  To me, that’s the point of gaming.  Blizzard’s tendency to angle in the other direction might be better for some things (development schedule, balancing), but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way for everyone.  There’s even a subtle undercurrent of resentment afoot these days against the restricted agency, diagnosed interestingly thisaway:

The Cataclysmic WoW Disease

Players want to make choices.  If they didn’t, they would watch a movie.  To be sure, there’s a difference between problems and choices, and some have different tolerances for each, but I believe that gamers want more than barely interactive movies.  Learning is a core component of gaming, and when choices are made for you, there’s less to learn.   At least, that’s one theory.

One recurring theme I see is the idea that classes are easier to balance than an open skill system.  On that I agree, but the difference is small.  As Brian has noted, balance is hard.  Period.  Also, as he and The Rampant Coyote suggest, it’s best to look at what you want to do with your game first and then balance around that.  Choosing a game design for ease of balance (a mirage at best) is a valid strategy, but not necessarily the best way to make the best game you want to make.  It’s certainly not the Only One True Path of Game Design or even game success.

I go further to suggest that Balance is overrated.  You will never have perfect balance. Even Chess, where both players have the same pieces, isn’t balanced, as players take turns (chronological imbalance), and the Queen and King are situated differently per side.  Even Go has the chronological imbalance.  That’s just the game design, never mind potential huge imbalances in player skill.  (Though I’d note that with enough turns, chronological imbalances diminish in importance.  Similarly, with enough choices, the impact of any one imbalance can be minimized.)

Further, even if we’re going to make one of those huge baseless scientific assumptions that class balance can be perfected, we’re still talking about MMOs that have a huge power band, big variances in gear, significant differences in player skill and even hardware issues.  These things will never be balanced.  That’s not a reason not to try to provide a level playing field for gameplay that likes it (PvP, for instance), and you can certainly do worse than to aim for something approaching balance, but balance can’t be the shrine at which agency and fun are sacrificed.

Life’s not fair.  Get over it.

It’s OK (and even healthy) to have gimped choices, so long as those choices can be changed easily.  Mark Rosewater of Magic the Gathering fame, has even noted that they intentionally design sub-par cards so that players can make choices.  Sometimes, even those “bad cards” wind up synergizing with other cards in new and interesting ways, making for a lot more fun than a bland, whitewashed balanced system.  This is important for game design; for players to be able to make choices, they need to have options.  That means there will inevitably be some bad choices.  Designers have to have the self-control to let players make those choices.

…and then the mercy to let them change their choices and learn from their mistakes, to help them dust off, learn something, and go try again.  That’s play.  That’s fun.  If the designers are making all the choices, players are missing out.

To be sure, an MMO is different from a brief MtG duel or game of Chess, but I’d argue that the long time investment in these games is greater incentive to give choice in play other than “reroll, noob”, especially when rerolling costs time and money.

… more on balance later.  Gotta go draw some stuff for it.  In the meantime, go check out those links and the discussions afoot.  Most are more interesting than my blather anyway.

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Mongolian BBQ

I’m not sure what sort of cultural mishmashmushing went on to bring the Mongolian BBQ style of restaurant to my neighborhood here in the U.S., but I’m grateful for it.

For those who aren’t familiar with these little dining gems, the prototypical Mongolian BBQ that I’m familiar with is a pretty loose, customer-driven sort of place.  Diners take a bowl and fill it with whatever they feel like from a food bar.  This usually means some hodgepodge of vegetables, some noodles, some thinly sliced meats and some sauces.  These are then given to a cook who drops the mess on a big round cooking surface and proceeds to stir up the goods as they make a couple of circuits around the hotplate.  It doesn’t take long, and in pretty short order, the cook hands the customer a new bowl with their neatly prepared meal.

There’s not much protocol to this experience.  Diners take what food they want and pile it as high as they like.  Most MBBQ places offer a couple of bowl sizes for differing appetites, but it’s all the same; give the customer a bowl and let them go to town.  Maybe George over there is a vegetarian, so he piles on the carrots, water chestnuts, celery and mushrooms, tops it with noodles and some sauces.  Maybe Junie over here loves chicken stir fry and collects some peppers, bean sprouts, celery and chicken slices, skipping the noodles, planning on putting it on rice instead.  Maybe Dafydd is a meat lover and just throws in noodles, pork, chicken, beef and some lemon sauce.  It’s a nice freeform menu.

The fun part is that the cooks don’t particularly care.  They do the same thing for every customer. They plop the food on the hotplate, stir it around a bit with a professional flourish, make sure the meats cook enough, and serve the goods in the same old bowls that everyone gets.  It’s a remarkably low-impact process for the providers; they prepare the food for the gathering bar and then just cook whatever people collect.

And yet, there’s a marvelous variety in possible meals.  Sure, it’s almost always going to be something at least vaguely Oriental instead of a big old T-bone steak or curry cupcakes, but even within that controlled chaos, based on a couple dozen ingredients, there’s a ton of room for customer choice.

In game design terms, then, the devs do the same thing for everyone, but the experience is largely up to the customer, because they are given a lot of control over what parts of the game engine and content they want to partake of.  This is the design space Minecraft occupies.  It sets some ground rules, gives players tools, operates by some consistent rules, and then just lets go of the reins.  DC Universe Online apparently has some significant customization options, something that makes a lot of sense in a world where everyone is a Hero.

In the dance between Order and Chaos, then, sometimes it pays off to embrace a little chaos.  If the dev process is the same for everyone (low chaos for the production team, which is nice for a budget and schedule), and the player brings their own agency to the table, crazy fun things can happen.  I think you need to set bounds, to be sure, so that you don’t wind up with complete chaos, but still, players will naturally want to do their own thing.  That’s one of the big selling points of games over movies or books.  I think that impulse should be leveraged, not suppressed.  It’s hard sometimes to let go and let players play, especially in a multiplayer venue, but then, that’s when emergent gameplay and awesome weird stuff happens.

It certainly works well for the Mongolian BBQs of the world.  Yes, some people will always want Wendy’s or TGIF, but then, there’s nothing saying you can’t have both, just for different meals.

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