Monday, January 23, 2012

'Suffering' in MMOs

I was trying to figure out what I would want to write about next. Then, this morning, Steven C sent me a mail and I decided to answer it publicly.

But first, thanks, Syl, for mentioning me :)

Now, Steven sent me a link over here and asked for my opinion on this. This subject is, of course, timeless. It's been discussed since I follow MMO blogs - and actually dates back to the very first MMOs. My opinion on the value of 'suffering' in MMOs is this: If the player accepts the suffering it is good - otherwise it is terrible.
Where 'accepting' a rule in a game means that the player thinks about how to deal with it inside the context of the game and doesn't start to think how stupid this is and that he shouldn't have to do this.

Take for example the queen in chess. Isn't it stupid that she can be blocked by other pieces? Now, if you honestly and genuinely think so, playing with your queen is frustrating. It doesn't make sense to you and the rule makes the game less fun for you.
However, if you accept the rule that the queen can be blocked by other pieces, and try to deal with it - and in a PvP game try to 'exploit' this rule against the opponent's queen - this rule can add a lot to the game. So, 'suffering' in MMOs is a matter of acceptance and developers should try to manage expectations to increase acceptance.

Rules always constrain players; it is their very nature. This applies to the fact that, in WoW, you have to run within 40m before you can attack an enemy, just as well as to the fact that you die when you reach zero HP or can be killed repeatedly by another player in some MMOs.

Generally, developing games is about developing rules which keep the player's mind busy (create non-boring gameplay) without being frustrating (=the player has to accept the rules). The fact that other games change the players' expectations, is a main driver for the "evolution" in games and also a vital part of the competition. Rules which have been accepted just a few years ago suddenly become unacceptable and thus feel frustrating to the player as another company does away with them.

Of course, these games which do away with rules still require other rules to keep the player's mind busy, and that's why they invent new rules. Here's an example.

Game 1: Reaching max level is hard.
Game 2: Everybody should be able to reach max level but seeing all the content is hard.
Game 3: Everybody should be able to reach max lvl and see all the content but reaching max itemlvl is hard.
Game 4: Everybody should reach maxlvl, see all the content, reach maxitemlvl but reaching the end of the Path of Titans is hard.
Game 5: ...

What's also playing into this 'evolution' of games is that designers are less and less afraid of using game mechanics which are not very immersive - or not immersive at all. This way players learn about the reasons for these mechanics and this makes them actually pretty good game designers. Now, being a game designer inadvertently reduces the 'magic' of a MMO world and this very magic was once very useful as it helped players to accept things (rules) just the way they are - without questioning them from outside of the context of the game.

Raph Koster wrote about this recently:
I meant the sense of playing a game without ever getting its mechanics rubbed in your face. In the past I have said that there are two core abilities a designer needs to have: to be able to strip away all the surface and only see the math and systems; and to do the exact opposite, and only see the surfaces, the fantasy of it.

These are also two ways to play a game. You can come to it as purely a math puzzle to solve, or you can come at it as an experience. And ironically, with all the advances we have made in terms of presentation, it feels like more and more games are less about the experience and more about the acronyms and mechanics.

The reason developers neglect the immersion and rather rub mechanics into the players' faces is actually that they have to try to find ever new ways to keep the veterans' minds busy and experience shows that once a player is 'into' a game, the immersion isn't as important for him. Thus, developers resort to the easy way out, and don't even try to hide mechanics.
If you want to know why MMOs stopped growing recently: that's the reason. For a new player the magic is actually the most important thing.

Oh - on that SW:TOR patch my comment is this: ridiculous.


  1. On Sw:Tor, I know you've mede your feeling on long term playability clear before, but what patch are we talking about here? The Ilum patch that made spawn camping possible, the fix, the Rise of the Rakghouls or a future one? And what is/was Ridiclous about it?

    On a personal note, I'm still enjoying that game right now, but I'm still levelling, we'll see how that pans out in a months time.

    1. I was referring to the world PvP bug which led to spawn camping. My comment on this is very short because I did't actually experience it myself - but when I read the posts and comments I found it ridiculous. As for the rest of the patch, I can't judge it because I don't play SWTOR anymore.

  2. Yeah, that was somewhat gamebreaking that...bit silly letting that one out.

  3. I like your point on mechanics vs immersion. I think that in MMOs it arises, because immersion is something that happens out in the open world and developers can't create challenging content there, since there are just too many unknowns, such as the number and skill of people in an area. So they have to stuff a known number of people into a highly constricted linear series of encounters in order to create a challenge.

    One might ask about GW2, that if dynamic events are so cool then why have they had to put in olde style 5 man linear dungeons? and the answer I think is that it's the only way they can provide challenging gameplay. In Rift did you ever not fail to close a Rift when in a zerg? or kill an open world boss?

    1. I agree that the goal to create a carefully balanced challenge is one reason for instanced content. And that instanced content is rubbing a game mechanic into the player'S face and is as such decreasing immersion (if we use it the way Raph Coster defined it, which seems reasonable to me).

      However, I also think that the game industry is wrong here and should rather focus on Dynamic Challenges. Generally, Challenge is overrated in MMOs, in my opinion. Social and emotional elements are much more important than logical ones (link). The industy is about to understand this, by the way. Unfortunately it makes them remove challenges completely, which is the other extreme ;(

  4. While I'm all for "requirements and restrictions", I don't believe in the inherent virtue of suffering (there are "good" grinds and "bad" grinds for example). I don't think it's the suffering that oldschool players want, but that they accept the "suffering" (or we may call it challenge, depending on who we are) as a necessary and crucial part on the way to reward and success (and epic memories). THIS is what they want and the suffering is an accepted part of how to get there.

    If anyone can show me a different way of making rewards feel epic than putting obstacles (of various nature) before the player's feet - be my guest.
    we like to "earn" things and a reward is only as good as its challenge. but then, judging from the way mainstream has gone, I probably should be careful with my frivolous use of "we" there. still, I really didn't like that particular article by Koster - I can't say I agree with it. :)

    (only just seen he actually posted a follow-up, I should probably head there now)

    1. I agree that to feel epic you need to suffer a bit.

      But I think you have to tackle this the other way round: If the player is feeling epic while he 'suffers' because he is working for something greater than himself - and can gain e.g. social recognition from the 'suffering' - then the player has a higher chance of accepting the 'suffering'.

      It's really just a way to make the player 'accept' a rule of the game and not questioning it from outside the game. If the rule also succeeds at keeping the player's mind busy, he will have fun.

    2. "I agree that to feel epic you need to suffer a bit. "

      I think I don't like the term 'suffering' at all in this context - it automatically paints an image of something wrong, it's too negative.

      I would rather have us say: "to feel epic, I need to be able to say that I've overcome some obstacles on the way, mastered some challenges, proved myself and learned something".
      challenge is the word, not suffering. every suffering is challenge, but not every challenge needs to be suffering / ordeal.

      we need to look at challenges and how good challenges are designed.

    3. I like Syl's distinction here between suffering and accepting a challenge. And it's just as true that one player's suffering is another's great challenge (see Dark Souls).

      It seems players meet "suffering" when they encounter a part in the game that's difficult without being interesting. They come to see it as an obstacle they must suffer to get to the part they really want. That kind of suffering though will make or break a game. So I agree that properly designing a challenge seems to be the place to look.

  5. I always have a chuckle when you use the phrase "keep their mind busy". It always paints images in my head of someone merely being manipulated into doing something, less an image of a player being *engaged*. I think what you mean by it is to *engage* the player's intellect. Is this correct?

    I also disagree: the reason the veteran is "into" the game is what is, in fact, immersion. That's what it means, to be "into" something, to be put "into" the experience. I don't think it difficult at all to immerse a player and time has shown that new ideas have always been infrequent. So what keeps players interested in Tamriel (Elder Scrolls)? Ferelden (Dragon Age)? Terraria? Sera (Gears of War)? Immersion is far from difficult to pull off in a well made game. The problem isn't the difficulty of immersing the player; it's a problem of incompetent and/or bad design.

    I do, however, agree that designers are much more concerned with rubbing the game in your face; it's a lot easier to do than to design an immersive world.

    1. I say "keep the mind busy" very consciously, Doone. There are no limits to what is allowed here. A super-immersive simulation with beautiful graphics is just as allowed as a skinner box based on greed.

      When I say 'immersed' I mean it the way Raph Koster just defined it on his blog. I could just as well say that new players love the simulation and cannot easily be enthused by an abstract gameplay alone. This usually changes with time /played.

    2. I have the impression you think any kind of "keeping the mind busy" is good? It's the reason I questioned the term. I don't think this is universally good, but I've seen you write about this in other posts, how it's important to simply keep the mind busy. I don't agree with that, if that's the case. If not, help me understand what's good and bad here in your opinion.

      And like so many of us here, I was also disagreeing somewhat with Koster's explanation, though he has a point on why it's becoming a rare feature.

  6. Discussing 'necessary evil' without saying that evil word: 'evil'. Always loved the gentle tone, Nils, always loved the tone.

    1. I don't consider it 'evil', Ahtchu. Games are about keeping a player's mind busy without frustrating him.

      If the player 'accepts' the 'challenge' of grinding 500 fire elementals to prepare to fight the fire lord, and treats it completely inside the context of the game, it can be just as effective at being fun as any 'engaging' combat.

      And if, on the other hand, the player doesn't accept the fact that he has to kill three pigs to advance a level it is not fun. Instead the player asks why he has to kill three pigs - it's such a stupid grind!

    2. I don't consider it evi... I mean either =P I was pointing out that a term normally used to described unfavorable conditions required for a given outcome involves wording that is 'unpleasant'. You managed to skirt it, however. I fully understand your post (and agree with it), I was actually offering praise through some wordsmithing of my own, apparently unappreciated =P