Chasing the Dragon
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)