Thursday, July 25, 2013

Betrayal and The Gaming Contract

There are really three parallel questions to be answered:
  1. Compatibility. Do the developer’s goals for the game coincide with what I want out of the game?
  2. Performance.  Is the developer competent to create and manage the ongoing game experience?
  3. Trust.  Can I trust the developers to provide me with information that is timely and reliable.

Very often when people complain about a game, they are complaining about one of these three categories.  Successful developers do all of these things well.

Compatability   (or, These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…)
Compatibility means that the developer is making a game I want to play.  There’s no point in complaining about the shortcomings of a game when the developer had no intention of creating the kind of game you’re looking for.  No amount of pleading will make SWTOR a vehicle combat game.  If WoW: Pandaria is all about dailies and faction rep, demanding that it provide 10 levels of questing content is missing the point. 

Not surprisingly, this tends to be the biggest source of player-complaints about games.  The devs aren't making the mmorpg that I want to play, therefore they are doing it wrong.  The recent trend with MMOs is toward more diversification and niche-development, so if a given game isn't for you, there ought to be many others to try.

The key here is that the developers have to communicate clearly what kind of game they are providing. They get into trouble when they try to be all things to all people, or when they seem to promise something that they really have no intention of delivering.

What’s more frustrating is when a developer has a stated goal for a game that they just can’t get to work.  They’re doing exactly what I want, our desires coincide perfectly, they just can’t get it right.

Open world PvP in SWTOR comes to mind.  The designers had ambitious plans for the planet Ilum but they could never get things to work as they wanted to, and in the end have all but closed down the place, opting instead to push warzones as their working PvP experience.

This last category is harder to define.    Players spend a good deal of time with a game.  Success in an MMO requires a commitment of time and money, of negotiating with family, and balancing work or school responsibilities.  And MMO's are based around systems that delay gratification to a great degree.  Players need to trust the makers of the game that all this time and delayed gratification will ultimately pay off with a reward in player satisfaction.

MMOs aren't games that you can jump into and experience at all levels, they require time in game, prior planning, careful management of resources, developing relationships with fellow players.  Players make decisions that have ramifications that play out weeks and months into the future.  I must choose to grind dungeons now, for tokens to buy gear, that allow me access to raids and other high end content months down the road.   MMOs are fundamentally based on players' decisions to guide the development of their characters.

When players choose an MMO, they are very aware of this gaming overhead.  It's part of what makes the genre so appealing, but also part of what makes players so prone to voicing their opinions in the first place, and ultimately wary to commit time to a game when they aren't sure of the outcome.
When they discover that their effort has been wasted, or that sub-optimal decisions have been made, players feel ill used.  When this happens because the devs led them to believe one thing was going to happen when something far different was really intended all along, they feel betrayed.  Players need to be able to rely on what the developers are telling them.  Without trust in the developers, players can’t feel confident in making any decisions

And this feeling of trust must be present in their other two relationships with Developers as well.  They feel lied to when developers rely on half-truths to avoid revealing their lack of performance. 
Players feel betrayed when the design goals of the game seem to change dramatically leading to a loss of compatibility.

The Elder Grind and the Incredible Shrinking World

It’s like eating ice cream.  On most any occasion, ice cream is an excellent thing.  When you eat an ice cream cone after a hot day in the sun, it gives you a rush of exhilaration that refreshes you.  Sitting down to a banana split for the first time can be an eye-opening and very satisfying experience.

But, as usual, if you eat ice cream for a while, it becomes ordinary.  The rush is gone.   So you try to find ways to intensify the experience again.  You might give yourself a huge serving and try to eat a quart at a time, or crank up the intensity with a double fat Ben and Jerry’s chocolate espresso,  or eat it twice as fast, nearly inhaling it in your enthusiasm.  MMO participation, recently, has taken on these same qualities.

It’s like 7-Eleven on a hot day and trying to slam down a 44 oz Slurpee, but only ending up with a brain freeze.  Or worse, like a drug addict increasing the dose to get the same high.  People have leveled to end game in 20 hours or less.  And then complained about the resulting burn-out and let down when having reached it.  Soon, they are leaving to find another game so they can repeat the process.

There is nothing at endgame. Or rather, what’s at endgame is vastly different from the game that preceded it.  This is where things stop being like a novel and start being more like Mario. 

Ideally for me, when I play the questing game it is as if I am a character in a fantasy novel, living out the stories in each zone.  I'm experiencing the collaborative narrative that the player and the game designer make together. 

At end-game, however, this dynamic changes. You transition from the developing story slowly unwinding before you, to a place where you are mostly doing repetitive tasks:  grinding the same instances, raiding the same bosses, completing the same daily quests.  This mode of existence is more like an arcade game, repeating the same levels of Mario over and over, multiple times per week.  It’s like being required to play the same 5 levels of Angry Birds every day.  This is what bloggers mean when they refer to MMORPGs being “gamified”.  The balance has switched from Role Playing to Game.

And this is literally what many players said they wanted.  This is the logical result of disparaging the leveling and questing game as “grinding.”  They found it tedious to level yet another character to 90, and so Blizzard minimized that portion of the game.  Leveling became quick and easy.  Annoying challenges were removed, whole zones were rendered unnecessary.  Heirloom gear, referral bonuses, and now xp potions all conspire to accelerate your travel to end game and the elder grind.

There was a time when you could find characters of all levels within a guild, questing and exploring and grouping for mid-level dungeons.  Now, I would guess that 75% of active characters are at max level, and another 20% are the alts of max level players.  There’s no need for someone to ask the guild for help on a tricky quest, no need to ask advice on where to find this piece of armor or locate that herb.  You’ll outlevel this or that item in a matter of hours so why worry about it?

The overall effect of this is to compress the game into the singularity of the maximum level.  World of Warcraft, after 4 expansions, has vast spaces to travel but the actual size of the game has become smaller.  Our collective vision has narrowed to a few capital cities and a few zones in Pandaria.  Nothing else really matters.  And this is true even as I try to level new characters.  Crickets and tumbleweeds are my only companions in Netherstorm or Grizzly Hills or Deepholm.  And even I find myself returning to the capitals periodically.  New starting areas are now once-only zones, restricted to specific races.

Instead of playing World of Warcraft, I'm really playing a game called Mists of Pandaria.   Rather than an expansion, it is more truly a sequel.