Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Information Curse

My very first computer game was a CRPG. I had a friend who was also into computers, but he did not like that game as much. So I played it alone in front of my computer for about a year. I would make different group compositions and venture forth.

Unfortunately, the game had a copy protection. Whenever you started it, it would ask you questions and you would have to type in an answer that was available only on a sheet of paper that could not be copied. I was in possession of that piece of paper only once, because another friend actually owned that game. To beat the copy protection I had memorized most of the sheet. You might ask why I didn’t write it down and thus copy it manually. Well, it wasn’t necessary. My fascination of the game was great enough to memorize the world-related answers without any effort.

I beat that game only once and it was a big letdown. Mostly I explored and discovered better group compositions. I was about 10 years old. The computer was financed by strictly saving every dime I got for three years.

This is nostalgia. When I think about that game today it boggles my mind what has been so fascinating. Sure, it was a RPG, even a mildly successful one for its time. But what you mostly did was travel and fight. Most fights were the same. The dungeons were mostly the same. Without internet, however, I would sporadically find new content. A new dungeon, a new travel route, a new weapon.

In some way this is similar to my first MMORPG experience; although this was already much less intense. My first MMORPG was (unfortunately) World of Warcraft. I mostly explored in classic WoW. In TBC I organized and min/maxed and then .. well it was over.

I still play World of Warcraft today, but just for the gameplay and the guild; in contrast to the first few years it, indeed, feels like a waste of time. Now, depending on your point of view everything is a waste of time, so I don’t easily give in to such arguments. But there is a difference between things that are a waste of time and things that feel like it, too.

Now, the transition from beginner to expert is inevitable, especially for a grown up. We are just too smart and experienced to be fascinated by content other grown-ups created. But it is still possible. I started to play WoW at the age of 24 and was fascinated!

Oh! And I was not that much fascinated by the massive multiplayer stuff! That mostly interfered with my immersion! I was fascinated by the huge world, the auction house, the variety of things, the lore, the character building and, of course, the refined gameplay. Most of all the persistence of the world and of my character fascinated me. It created meaning. I loved the absence of quicksaving. This is nothing a single player game couldn't have delivered (even better?)

Later I started to like running dungeons and eventually raids with friends. The main reasons were even more aspects of the world, more variety of things, more lore and even more refined gameplay.

So Blizzard are not completely off the track when they sacrifice the "massive experience" in favour of the "gameplay experience". They just overshoot when they sacrifice the "world experience", too.
End of Interlude

What is an even bigger problem than being an adult is the internet. If you stand on the shoulders of giants it is really, really hard to surprise, let alone fascinate you. It is for all practical purposes impossible with games like Cataclysm.
In the beginning of WoW, when there was little internet presence, and I simply didn’t look for it, I was one of the few people on my server who actually tested and calculated the best dps speccs/equipment. There was no recount then – only the combat log. It was a lot of fun!

Cataclysm is a lot more complicated than classic WoW, but I never had to learn stuff on my own. I use an addon that tells me exactly what button I need to press next. On fights like in Blackwing Descent I cannot follow this addon completely, as I also need to interrupt specific 1.5s spells from bosses and save energy for that. That is not at all easy. But the difficulty lies in the execution alone. There is little exploration, learning, tactically or even strategic thinking involved.

When I was about 11 years old I got my hands on a solutions-book for said game. I read through it in an afternoon. It was great to finally read all this stuff that I had discovered for a year! Much to my surprise, there even was a lot of stuff I hadn’t discovered! After I had read that book I never touched the game again. I was spoiled. I had learnt it all reading a book in an afternoon. Now I knew it – all riddles were solved. I got what I wanted in a way that I couldn’t possibly have wanted.

The reason I write this long text are but a few questions: Do we have to accept that all future games focus on execution instead of learning?

Is the fact that we are smart adults with internet access and thrown into a competitive environment where we compare each other in facebook-style every minute of our life, the end of all mystery? The end of all tactics? The end of all exploration?

Shouldn’t the game companies try to create games (worlds) that resist the internet? Shouldn’t we finally have games again that are unpredictable in nature, but still persistent?


  1. Really wonderful question. I have been playing Knights of the Old Republic, and it has been tremendously difficult to resist the numerous online guides. When I do break down and look something up, I get a little irritated if I've missed something. It's a shame that I feel this way, but I think the only way to counter the internet is to create experiences where either decision is a rewarding one.

  2. I think something very essential to the drive that makes us seek spoilers on the internet is the multiplayer aspect of MMOs coupled with the backbone of these games being Power Progression.

    If you are playing on your own you might restrain yourself enough to beat the game without spoilers, or search only when you encounter a roadblock.

    But knowing that you are in teh same environment where while you're "enjoying the game" others progress by all means neccessary... It's just silly not to do it.

    And thus MMOs become progression rat-races.

    If only there was something else than power in combat?... Or probably lots of other aspects, but equally rewarded and established by design.

  3. Firefox hit the nail. It is the competetive environment that makes it even less fun to not inform yourself on the internet.

    Game developers, of course, know this. It is just that they create games that simply accept this. Nobody here could beat WoW Cataclysm without access to addons and guides.

    But do we have to accept for all eternity that all challenge lies in the execution alone since 2005?
    Or can we develop persistent (=meaningful) worlds that refuse to bow to the internet - at least partly.

    The first thing that comes to mind are procedurally generated dungeons. We've been there with Diablo some fiveteen years ago.

    And don't tell me the 3D dungeons cannot be as visually attractive this way. I already need to force myself to actually look at the dungeon every once in a while.

  4. So the only 2 paths I see -either entertainment them parks , providing gameplay (WoW and its multitude clones) either dynamic emergent world mostly player driven .

    Something I sadly cant give examples of, but UO was pretty good start if one has to start somewhere.

    And the thing about emerging content you have to give players tools to change the world. You cant give them empty space, mobs to grind and say this your sandbox (e.g. darkfall).

    Most developers will not give any tools to players because their experience been that whatever they give to players they can abuse. But instead of working on improvements accountability and quality of tools to prevent it they simply scrap this approach altogether

    I do think holy grail of virtual worlds depends a great deal of accountability. Players characters should not be anonymous - internet+anonmyity = assholes. That doesnt mean it has to have your real name or anything .

    But character should not be something intangible throway things, nobody can trace back to you.

    Players behave very differently in communities. -compare how one behaves in pug vs guild groups. In clan scrim vs pub sessions

    Zinga exploits the social dynamics in very insidious ways by using your peers(facebook friends) to pressure you into doing stuff zynga benefits from (which is basically buying their virtual junk)

    Yet none of the virtual worlds had even rudimentary system to actually remove the anonymity curse

  5. Thanks for your insights, Max.

    I agree, that anonymity can be a curse as well. If it wouldn't sound stupid I'd suggest an innovation: Seperate servers of limited size.

    Sandbox style elements in servers that are inhabited by just a few thousand players will automatically create some measure of unpredictability. What is true for one server is not necessarily true for the other. So this is one way to attack the information curse. But it is not the only one.

    The separation of servers is another, and so is procedurally created content.

    In times of the internet, exploration gameplay in a competitive environment can only work, if the environment inhabits a limited amount of players and is unpredictable to some extend.