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Chasing the Dragon

June 18, 2012

Dear Reader,

Tobold recently made an offhand comment about MMOs sparked a thought in me I wanted to develop.  He was discussing the “similarity” (or lack thereof) between 4th edition D&D and MMOs:

In every game I always like to look at what the player is actually *doing*. Not the make-belief part of him saying “I throw a fireball”, but the actual part of where he points on the battlemap to indicate where the fireball is centered and rolls some dice. The reason I am looking at this is because it is the actual activity which ultimately determines how much fun I am going to have. Are there “interesting decisions” involved, to quote Sid Meier? Are there good moves and bad moves possible? How important is it that I make the right decision, press the right button, and how important is it to press that button as fast as possible? Two games which have exactly the same make-belief situation, let’s say my fighter character in a sword fight against an ogre, will feel very differently if they have very different actual activities, e.g. one being fast button-mashing and the other being tactical combat.

It struck me then; by Sid Meier’s definition of a “game,” (which is a somewhat limited one and certainly not the only definition out there) WoW is not a game.

To be fair, Meier was talking about fun when he produced this definition, not about game design or what a game should be.  The whole quote reads “A (good) game is a series of interesting choices,” which was meant to illuminate where fun in a game comes from: problem solving.

Let’s take a look at a several different types of games and how they present interesting choices.

St. Petersburg, a board game, uses a limited resource (money) to force players to make interesting choices in purchasing.  Would it be better to buy buildings and score points right now?  Should I save my money and buy nobles to score more points when the game is over?  How much is the right amount to invest in peasants?  Should I use my observatory to look in the noble pile or take the point it provides if I don’t use it?  The choices are endless, and that’s one reason the game is known for its deep strategy and complexity.

Chess, similarly, has an almost infinite variation of game play.  In yet another excellent Radio Lab, entitled Games, Fred Freidel talks about “the book” of Chess.  In this metaphorical book, every “professional” game that has been played since games started being recorded (in the 16th century) is documented.  Still, there are so many interesting choices that even now, 500 years later, games still almost always go out of book.

How about some card games?  In Spades, the interesting choices come from the bidding (should I bid more and reach and hope but maybe fail, or should I bid less and potentially get bags?  Should I just bid nil and take a big risk?) and from the actual play (should I lead diamonds because I think my partner is void?  Should I spades this trick even though I didn’t plan to take it but potentially set my opponents?).

Console games are no different.  Take Ogre Battle, for instance.  In Ogre Battle, another famously complicated game, there’s tactical unit management.  Since you don’t actually choose what moves your units make, how you build your units is incredibly important.  On top of that, you have to be careful not to overlevel, because if you’re substantially stronger than the empire you’re fighting, you look like a bully and lose reputation.  So therein is another interesting choice: do I make the game easy for myself, or do I maintain a high reputation?

Computer games have plenty of interesting choices, too.  Civ 5, which I’ve been playing a lot of, has interesting choices in every stage.  A thing as simple as city placement makes you think.  Do I put it in this hex so there’s no overlap with my closest city?  Do I move it one closer, creating overlap, but getting to this resource a little sooner?  Do I move it one further, giving the enemy a chance to settle in between and split my territory, but giving myself a coastal hex so I can make ships?  So many interesting choices.

Then we get to WoW.  Due to the mathematics of World of Warcraft, I’d argue that in the core game – end game raiding or PvP – provides no interesting choices at all.  Theorycrafting has mathematically shown what the right choices are, and all other choices are, frankly wrong choices.  There is no interest in that, no true decisions to be made.  Instead, you always increase this stat or that stat, use this ability more in your rotation and that other ability less.  You don’t stand here and don’t stand there.  There’s simply no interesting choices to be had.  The game of WoW is about skill then, about improving your rotation and your raid awareness.

Now, according to Koster, another game designer, there’s plenty of fun to be had in improving a skill.  Koster argues that as long as you’re learning something, whether it’s problem solving (a la Meier’s definition) or a physical skill (such as in a FPS – aiming – or a platformer – jumping and timing – or in WoW – mixing awareness with focus on rotation).  I do feel that Meier’s “definition” (which remember had more to do with fun than with actually attempting to define a game) is overly limited since it quite clearly omits some huge genres of gaming.  Still, I feel the best games incorporate both learning and making interesting decisions, and WoW clearly doesn’t offer half of those options.

I think, in fact, that the amazing popularity of achievement hunting, pet and mount gathering, and transmogrifying is really an attempt by the player to take control of their choice making within the game.  There’s no real math involved in those activities, barring the probability of rare pet drops.  These activities empower the player to have control over the game by making decisions about what to pursue.  Do I want to camp the time-lost proto drake today?  Do I want to grind out more Argent Dawn tokens?  In other words, how do I want to spend my time?  This choice, of course, is where we get the “theme park” metaphor.  The choices, then, come more from the metagame than the game itself.

I’m not sure if that makes WoW more of a game or less of a game.  Does being so complicated that doing well takes research mean that WoW’s very well designed or very poorly?  Does pushing all the choices to the metagame make WoW complex or so simple that you can look up everything you need to know?  Does that make WoW a good game or a bad game?  I don’t know.  Clearly the popularity of the game shows that there’s a great mechanic for return playing, but is it just the reward cycle or good game play?

My theory is that the growing disenchantment – general malaise reported by both me and other bloggers (very many of them just in the last month, sadly) – is a failure of the reward cycle.  I think those of us who’ve put the most time in at some point realized that all the hard work we’ve done – note I say work, not play – was all about getting shinies, or beating new challenges, or learning new things that made us happy, but like becoming tolerant to a medication, eventually that rewards cycle just didn’t give us enough motivation to go forward.

The takeaway from that, though, is less about WoW changing and more about all of us changing.  It’s not a failure of the designers as much as it is simply a mechanic of the human psyche.  All the complaints we’ve come up with are justifications, which doesn’t make them wrong, but the fact was that we didn’t ever really enjoy the game as a whole as much as the specific elements that triggered our reward system.  Without that trigger, it doesn’t matter what changes, improves, or is completely overhauled.  If this is true, of course, that spells a problem, because that’s just that.  We’re done.  Our trigger is broken when it comes to MMOs, so until something new comes along, we won’t derive the kind of pleasure we became used to, like a heroin addict chasing the dragon and finding, instead, just more withdrawl.


Stubborn (and trigger-happy)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 3:00 pm

    I agree with you for the most part. It just gets rather complex when you consider that for a long time in WoW, there *are* choices. It’s just that they get figured out and all the players get to feel like idiots for their wrong choices. This perfectly describes the state of the WoW community: angry idiots who made the wrong choices and are now lashing out at each other about what the right choice is.

    I’m not calling all the players idiots, but rather playing on what the game does to players by presenting them with false choices. It’s not a smart game. It used to be a little smarter than it is now, but arguably WoW has never been a smart game.

    That said Sid’s got some stuff to answer for Civilization. There are clearly wrong choices, less interesting ones, that players make before realizing the AI is completely dumb.

    • June 18, 2012 4:18 pm

      I agree that Civ 5 was a lesser game than Civ 4, but I would be willing to bet it’s along the same lines as the changes to the MMO community. Making the genre simpler increase revenue and makes the corporation happier so there can be a Civ 6. I’m not necessarily happy about that, but at the same time, we don’t want gaming to become so niche that only old players can get in to it. I think Civ 2 and Civ 5 are about on par, to be honest, and hopefully we’ll see a more complex developmental cycle again as the newer gamers want more difficult games. Who knows, though?

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Talarian permalink
    June 18, 2012 3:56 pm

    You’re focusing on the macro choices rather just the micro choices. In a game like WoW, not only do you have “What activity do I want to play today?” you also have “What should I do in the next 3 seconds to maximize my DPS/HPS/Defense/etc.?” It’s an interesting choice to note that the boss is about to move, so do I put my totems down now because they’re about to expire and have to do it again in 10 seconds once the boss has moved, or put them down later and save the GCD for something else?

    This also all brings up whether just because something is computationally solved, does it make it less good of a game? You argue that theorycrafting finds the absolute correct answer (and indeed, given enough computation power, you could probably find the perfect situational rotation for every single boss fight ever), and therefore means that it’s not a series of interesting choices, but that there are no choices at all. What does this mean for a game like Checkers, which is computationally solved? There is no game of Checkers you could have where the computer would not win. Heck, even Chess is probably within a few years to a decade or two away from being computationally solved as well. Does that make it any less of a game?

    It’s a great philisophical question, because humans make poor computers. So if we pit two humans against each other in a game of Checkers or Chess, you easily still have the potential for variation in who wins the game, despite the fact that they’re computationally solved or close to it.

    • June 18, 2012 4:16 pm

      I’d argue that “What should I do to maximize my dps” isn’t a choice at all, if you’re informed enough to know what the “right” choice is. Either you’ll hit the right button and maximize your dps, or you won’t, which would be the wrong choice. That’s not an interesting choice; it’s a trained reaction. There’s clearly a right and a wrong choice, so really there’s no choice at all.

      Yes, I think something being computationally solved does make it less of a game, which is why most people stop playing checkers after they grow up. Chess, actually, is not within a few years of being computationally solved, unless you’re into the whole technological singularity thing, in which case we can argue about that instead some other time. In the same radio lab, the fellow who I quoted in the article says – in a non-scientific measurement, I’m sure, but still – there’s 10^120 possibilities in a 40 move chess game, and “You’d have to dismantle an entire solar system just to store that information.” I think that’s why games like Chess or Go continue to boggle computers; you can’t easily mathematically solve them; a level of creativity matters. Bobby Fischer’s “game of the century” (from the same episode, but there’s countless Youtube videos recreating it with commentary about alternative moves and why it was so incredibly amazing) would have crushed a computer, even a computer of modern day, except that, of course, it’s “in the book” now. Consider Tic-Tac-Toe, Snakes and Ladders, and other kids’ games. They’re very, very simple, easily computationally solved. Is that what you want WoW to become? It’s possible, in fact, that you do, because I’m not sure your age, and skill-based games favor the young. I prefer games with broader thought and less motor skill.

      As for the checkers thing, they talk about checkers in that same Radio lab; give it a listen.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Mangara permalink
      June 19, 2012 8:47 am

      There is an nice distinction here: is it the existence of a right and wrong choice that makes it less of a game, or the knowledge which is which? I’d argue that, as long as you don’t know which choice is right and which is wrong, the decisions you’re making are interesting to *you*.

      As a deterministic game, Chess is a perfect example here. In theory, you could plot out every possible game of chess to see which move is the best in every setting. So even in Chess, the perfect move exists, and all others are just wrong. The only thing that keeps the game interesting is that we don’t have the means to find out which is which.

      Even then, computers have become so good at playing chess that they easily beat professional players. Several show matches have shown us that even the best human players lose to computers, and on slower hardware like smartphones, chess engines are on the level of grandmasters. So any move you or I make is likely to be provably sub-optimal. Does this reduce your enjoyment of Chess?

      The same thing is true for me in WoW raiding. Things like positioning and cooldown usage depend heavily on the fight and your group’s strategy and composition, to the point where even though the optimal solution might exist, there’s noone to tell you what it is. This way, I still feel like I’m making interesting choices.

    • June 19, 2012 10:34 am

      Overall, I agree with the point you’re making regarding knowing what’s right and wrong being the actual problem. Still, let me provide you with another example of interesting choices. Take Go, which is both older than chess and “simpler.” Regardless, computers are still reliably beaten by human players due to the subtleties of the game. I used chess because there was a useful source (the Radio Lab episode) and people are more familiar with it, but there are games out there that cannot be reliably computationally solved. There is most likely still a compuationally “right” and “wrong” move, but it’s truly (at this stage in technological development) impossible to calculate. If something is impossible to calculate, can the moves really be classified as “right” and “wrong?”

      Does it reduce my enjoyment? Yes, if I have access to “the book” or I’m playing against a computer. I think your point may be right about the availability of information being part of what ruined the game. We know for a fact that bosses became nearly impossible without add-ons (like DBM) because the bosses that weren’t that hard were made trivial by DBM. There again, information made the game less fun. I have for years blamed Blizz for allowing any addons at all; there is a great debate about whether knowing what’s going wrong and fixing it is more or less valuable than a poor player being embarrassed by their lackluster dps. I’d argue that it’s more about whether you want to have fun or succeed, which both occur in a similar way but are not necessarily the same thing. People play for different reasons, and add-ons and out-of-game information about efficiency only benefit a part of the crowd, but we’re all basically forced to use them to play “well.” That’s the nature of a MMO, a social game. That, to me, isn’t fun.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. June 18, 2012 4:36 pm

    I think it’s weird that you file away things like “what should I do in the game today” under metagame. I would consider that the actual game, while things like how to achieve maximum dps are simply rules, just like the knight not being allowed to go in a straight line in chess.

    • June 18, 2012 5:12 pm

      I wonder if it’s an issue of role playing. I’m not sure your focus, but if you’re more of a role player, perhaps seeing it the decision of what to do with your time as the game itself makes sense to me. It’s entirely possible that my defining it as metagame comes from my personal view of how the game “should be” played. That secretly influencing my thinking has been a bane on my game playing in WoW for years now, and may explain why I define that how I do. Interesting point.

      Still, thinking now, I would still classify thinking about “which character to play” or “what activity to pursue” within the game is inherently a metagame decision because you’re thinking about it beyond the game environment. You’re not your character, sitting in Org thinking “Do I want to go get a new pet today?” You’re you, making that decision from an out of game space. That’s why I think role playing may explain the difference of opinion. If you do in fact role play as your character (even indirectly, without pretending to be “in the game”), it changes where the decision is being made.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Rauxis permalink
    June 19, 2012 12:36 am

    I think you are overlooking one aspect – that WoW has limited the actual choices more and more. Be it skill points, fun activities like wall climbing, how todo your questing and most of all the social decision WHO I play with.
    Like a themepark closing of old areas to enforce a crowd around the new shinies… because where there is a huge crowd, there must be fun 😛

    Rauxis, chosen of CAT

    • June 19, 2012 10:26 am

      I think you’re absolutely right; I do think that less and less choice was made available throughout the game’s development. I don’t know if I’d put more on Blizz or the theorycrafters, but both are absolutely culpable for the state of WoW right now. Excellent point.

  5. June 25, 2012 10:10 am

    I find this interesting. I think we as players forgot WHY we play as well. Sure, fun. But each player also has a different perspective of what is fun. The MMO community is in fact a reflection, all be it digital of real life social mechanics. Think of it on this, people are driven in different aspects of their life. those who are constantly DRIVEN to make achievements etc, tend see see MMOs as work in my opinion. Those that pick and choose and relax with the game see it as fun.

    I’ll give an example. In my guild on Age of Conan, I have some players who are content driven and constantly trying to perfect their rotations. One of my players though who has been working in our guild for well close to 4 months has just now hit lv 80 cap. She took the time to enjoy every quest she could find, to read them and correlate them with her toon’s immersion goals. She often apologizes for not being ready to raid with the rest of us. I then have to quietly sit her aside and ask her is she actually having fun. When the answer almost always is yes, then I show her there is nothing wrong with her play style because the game is still fun to her.

    I also have an experienced veteran that often chides folks for not pushing themselves. In those cases I have to often talk to him about slowing down and not pressuring our crew. There are no real achievements in AoC. Sure there are factions with which you can buy specific gear and mounts or pets, but nothing too extreme. The grind can sometimes be a pain, but then, I look back and reflect on what are my motivations. I have yet to see all of the content in the game as I take my time piece by piece. It’s a hobby which I have seen tangible (read digital) results. I built a guild City up from nothing but a bunch of placement markers to almost all buildings and in the future walls and towers to maximum upgrade. I don’t rush it, I just get it done when I have time. On top of all that, there is one achievement our guild has obtained because veryone contributes in thier own way. Top renown rank on our server for the past 2 weeks running. Top 3 on server for almost 2 months running. This was pretty cool, though still not a necessity. It has allowed us to do more interesting things and we hear the guild name whispered by vrious NPCs in all the town hubs lol.

    Anyways, with any MMO, you have to reflect on what you want FROM the game. WoW has that capability, but everyone chooses to go for the achievements or the End Game Content at whatever pace they need to. It’s like that with any game really. Another of my old favorite MMOs was SWG pre NGE. It was an open world sandbox, whether pve or pvp. Many of us in those days took pride in doing a little RP and created our own content. We used to do speeder bike races, raids on hostile guild cities, collecting items to decorate our houses etc. I try to maintain that ideal of self creation when possible. When not, I look after continueing the build of my city and reputation. And of course I am an altiholic so I am always working that angle as well.

    Anyways, my 2 silver on the topic.

    Stubborn good to see you my friend!

    • June 25, 2012 10:59 am

      See, my fear is that what I used to go to MMOs for is simply not possible for MMOs to grant me any more. Like a drug habit, I’m worrying that I return to MMOs simply because that’s what I’ve done for the last 6 or so years. Without MMOs filling that time, I’m not sure what I’d do. That doesn’t seem to me to be much of a reason to play.

      To be frank, most MMO storylines aren’t that in-depth or well-crafted. Since I have read (and to some extent still do) read a lot, they don’t offer me much in that way. Most game play is pretty similar to one of the two MMO models: hotbar or action combat, so for the most part I’ve played out those two styles. Most MMOs follow the same basic character path of leveling, getting better gear, facing hard challenges for even better gear, and raiding (or PvPing), so I’ve pretty much played out those elements, as well. Other than something to fill time, I’m just not sure what I get from MMOs any more.

      The saddest part is that it seems like the more I play WoW, the less happy I am. From having to deal with jerks, to watching the leveling process slow down more and more, to analyzing all the bad design decisions Blizz has made, it seems the more time I spend in Azeroth, the more unhappy I am. Like a drug user, though, I just keep coming back. I gave myself this 10×85 challenge to try to breathe some new life into the game, and it worked, to some extent. I did have fun exploring some of the new classes and mechanics I’d seen but not gotten to play with. This last toon, though, the warrior, is basically just my paladin without healing. I’m not particularly enthralled.

      Should I stop playing? Almost certainly. But then what? Therein lies the problem, you see.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. June 26, 2012 8:43 am

    For that, I would say continue trying other MMO’s but try them for different reasons. Ok, for me, I love to explore. I enjoy the other aspects of MMO gaming, but I love to explore. I like to see where all the quests go and why. Sometimes of course it’s the kill 10 rats, but hey I still enjoy it. The other thing I do…not often but occasionally is role play. Screw the levels. Screw the raids. Screw the instances and shinie’s. I attempt to role play. It’s a break in scenery and allows me to help flesh out my toon’s motivation factor for questing in certain areas or not, raiding or pvping or not etc.

    But I do understand the drug factor. Currently, my guild and I have all of our T1 raids on farm status and now working into our T2 raids. (For AoC, there are only 4 current Tiers of raiding, each with 3 sections on average and they are pretty much a big pain in the ass). Now, I do this because it’s what the rest of the guild wants. As their Leader I work hard to provide them with the opportunities to see different stuff.

    If you get to the part where you are a digital drug zombie, yup time to take a serious long break from the MMO worlds. I do understand the whole chemical endorphine ridden win scenario stuff. I just don’t make it a habit. OR…I challenge myself to hit those raids piss drunk and still beat them lol. We are pretty infamous for our friday night drunken raids. One of my veterans is rather prolific in his after action review posts the next day which usually lends to quite a bit of laughter. But that is because while we do try very hard to be good at raiding, we also do our best to laugh and have fun. The second it stops being fun…that’s when we stop playing.

    • June 26, 2012 11:46 am

      I’ve tried playing for other reasons, but the fact is that honestly I’ve done to death all of the 4 core play modes (the Bartle types), and I’m just not that enamored with any of them any more. That’s more a failing in me than the games, but it’s not something I can just ignore. When something new comes along (such as the crafting in Fallen Earth or the Crew Missions in Star Trek), I play a lot of those, but eventually they get stale, too.

      I’ve reflected a lot recently on the importance of a good guild – that is, a guild filled with people you really enjoy spending time with. With the exception of the one set of couple friends, the guild I’m in does nothing for me. No guild in quite some time has felt like a comfortable place to just hang out. There’s either been too much college rowdiness, too much cliquish in-fighting, too much elitist exclusionism, or simply not enough socialization for it really to be called “home.” I think if I could find a place in a guild where I really enjoyed the people, I’d enjoy the games more, too. Hell, it was only my friends in SW:toR that kept me playing that to end game.

      Still, I’ve had 4 or 5 failed guild searches since I felt comfortable, and I’m just tired of it. I left it to my buddy and he turned up nothing, eventually quitting WoW, and then the guild our couple friends are in fell into our laps. It was settling, but at least I was through looking, but now, of course, I have an extra set of obligations to stay in this lousy guild.

    • June 27, 2012 9:51 am

      Hmm..I know this is an insane question Stubborn, but have you thought of creating a guild of your own? Not for pure progression, but just a place where you recruit folks based upon a fun loving attitude or whatever social aspects you are looking for? I did that with The Ghostwolves on AoC. Now we all know there are people you like or don’t like, got it. But as the Guild Leader you have the chance to create what you are looking for. It was precisely that reason I created my own guild. I took it nice and slow. I’ve had people come and go and that’s guild life. But over time I have grown very fine friendships which I value daily. Just a thought. I think if AoC isn’t your bag, the functionality of LoTro may still be there.. I dunno, it’s a possible project. Just remember never to hate what you love lol.

    • June 27, 2012 11:02 am

      Been there (to some extent), done that. Twice now (once again, to some extent) I’ve formed guilds with friends and friends of friends, and twice now it’s fallen to pieces as people’s schedules changed and we found it either impossible to recruit or the recruits simply weren’t what we had in mind. WoW’s just not in a state where recruiting’s particularly easy, so other than scooping up parts of other guilds that are falling apart or trying to once again make a guild “of friends” (and people they know), I’m at a loss. That’s why I’m just kind of sitting for now. Thanks for the suggestion all the same! (:

  7. June 28, 2012 10:36 am

    I do understand about social dynamics, Ive lost a couple of my best team mates because work schedules changed. I see what you are saying though.

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