What makes choices fun in games?

I’ve written before that I don’t enjoy complex min/maxing in my RPGs.  They often result in the cookie cutter situation where your character will be horribly gimped if you don’t look up the optimal spec/ gear before deciding how to spec/ gear. We’ve also seen via WoW that if the player base believes this to be the case, then they will socially exclude anyone who doesn’t conform or doesn’t put out equivalent performance to the min/maxer.

So where does this leave players who do want to play socially with others but don’t enjoy minmaxing? It leaves them with a suboptimal gameplay that involves lots of looking stuff up.

I thought instead this morning I’d look at what sort of choices do lead to more fun gameplay, in my opinion. When I talk about choices in this context, I don’t mean the second by second choices a player would make during combat. I am talking about out of combat choice mechanics where there is no time pressure, such as choosing dialogue options, gear options, class/ spec options, and so on.

The main thing is that I’d like to either know in advance what the consequences of a choice are likely to be, or else have utter trust in the game not to stiff me (unless I already knew it was that type of game and restarting is easy.)

  1. Cosmetic choices. The choice you make is purely a preference that won’t affect gameplay. I like choosing what to eat on a menu when I go out to a restaurant and imagining what it will taste like, but the end result is (hopefully) eating a meal, whichever option is picked. I don’t need there to be an obvious bad option – it’s just as much fun to pick between lots of different awesome options.
  2. Choices that give me more control over gameplay, so that I can tailor it to my preferences. Choosing between which of my alts to play is a fun choice. Choosing whether to go a level deeper into Angband (increased risk) vs going back to the town level to sell up is a fun choice. Picking a class or which zone to go to next can be this type of choice, but again it doesn’t require there to be an obvious worse option. Choosing is more fun for me when there isn’t so I can just pick the option that I find more appealing.
  3. Choices that give me more control over narrative/ story. Choosing an origin in DAO is a fun choice. Choosing between renegade/ paragon options in Mass Effect can be fun too.

And here are some examples of choices that are not fun for me.

  1. My choice is irrelevant. It genuinely makes no difference in either short term or long term. (Note: There is a subtle difference between this and a cosmetic choice.)
  2. My choice is uninteresting. It may make a difference but I don’t care (at least not unless it’s a difference that makes an obvious difference in gameplay or looks).
  3. Traps! At least one of the options is going to screw my gameplay over in a major way, and this is particularly bad if I won’t find out until a lot later into the game. This turns the choice away from ‘pick your favourite’ and into ‘avoid picking the bad option’ – a subtle difference but one which adds into the selection process.
So where does this leave SWTOR, which is offering moral choices to characters through the levelling stories, resulting in darkside or lightside points? Rohan wonders what sort of impact these story choices might have on the gameplay. I suspect the answer is that in order to keep players happy, they will have to be partly cosmetic. Or at least, they will influence the character’s personal story/ narrative but mechanically have little to no effect on any group content.
I’d be quite happy with a game which produced an awesome story at the cost of a gimped endgame character. But I wouldn’t bother playing past the end of the storyline, because I’m not a masochist. And that’s why Bioware will offer ways to grind lightside or darkside points in endgame if it’s going to make a mechanical difference. I suggest to prospective players: play the single player storyline purely for fun and make the interesting choices that the character in your imagination would make. Don’t worry about endgame consequences, there will be a way round it.

Are any gaming conventions fun?

I’ve read a few blogs from people who went to PAX East over the weekend. And what they had in common is that no one really found the convention itself to be all that fun, it was more about being able to meet up with fellow bloggers/ guildies/ etc there.

Now last year I went to a couple of conventions. One was the Eurogamer Expo, which is a gaming convention, has a show floor full of demos that you can try, and that’s about it. I wasn’t impressed. I wonder if it was partly my own fault – what did I really expect from a gaming convention anyway? There were games, right?

The other convention that I went to last year was Eastercon, which is a sci fi convention. We had a blast! There were panels on all the time, there were films to watch, demos to take part in, panels with well known authors who you could go talk to, a chocolate tasting (yes really). even a room full of board games to play. Some of the panels were even about games, and we also got to meet friends from around the country.

I know which convention I would go to again and it would be the scifi one. But why the big difference? I wonder if it’s because sci fi conventions tend to be fan run, with lots of volunteers stepping up to offer to run sessions on just about anything under the sun, lots of families and family oriented activities, and people with years of fandom under their belt who are keen to welcome newbies into the convention scene.

Maybe it really is about the people, and not about the big shiny demos that you need to queue for hours to play or the devs who probably don’t have time to talk to you anyway.

In any case, me and Arb are going to Comic Con 2011, one of the biggest conventions of them all. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. Will it be more like the scifi conventions with fans, fan run activities, panels and crazy things to do, or will it be more like the gaming conventions with silent anonymous queues to see the good stuff.

Has anyone actually had fun at a gaming convention? I wonder a bit about Blizzcon too, because really the main fun there seems to be meeting guildies which you don’t actually have to do at a Blizzcon.

First alt is for fun, second alt is serious business

Do you remember the first character you played in your first ever MMO?

You probably didn’t bother to go look up optimal builds on bulletin boards, you didn’t care or even understand what the endgame was and you certainly had no plans for what you’d want to do with your character later on. Maybe you picked your character because you liked the look, or it fitted some favourite genre concept, maybe it was based on an old pen and paper character, or a favourite character from a book, film, or comic.

In any case, you logged in and the whole experience was a voyage of discovery. You were learning how to play, exploring the game world, figuring out how to interact with other players and NPCs, and probably making lots of mistakes and doing lots of things that you’d later judge to be embarrassingly bad. But it was fun. It must have been fun because you stuck it out long enough to either learn better or to start another alt. On the next alt, you used all the things  you had learned about the game from your first character. You were able to save time, make sure to pick up important quests and items, and probably had a much smoother ride through the game.

And it’s funny that in some games, you can go back and ‘correct’ any mistakes more easily than others. In a level based game, you can go back and repeat old levels if you want to make sure to pick up all the loot, grab all the achievements, or finish up anything you forgot last time. Although modern MMOs make it easy to change many things about your character if you later decide that you chose badly, the experience of nonoptimal levelling will stay with you. It won’t affect your character later in the game; you can replace gear, repeat any rep grinds that you missed, and so on. But you will know that you could ‘do it better’ if you ever wanted to start again.

That lends a lot of replayability to a game. It’s the notion that if you start again, your experience will be sufficiently different to be interesting (or at least, more interesting than mooching round the endgame and doing daily quests ad infinitum). It might be different because you pick a different class, level in different zones, pick different difficulties, or because the game has some randomness built into the levelling game.

I was thinking about this with Dragon Age. I finally gave in to my story fixation and set the difficulty to Easy permanently for my first play through, and I love the extra flexibility that this gives my game. I can pick companions because I like them and not just because they have classes or abilities that I need to beat the difficulty. I don’t have to stress over character builds or loot, I’ll just make do with whatever I get that looks interesting. And I can still get through the game, experience the story, and learn enough about the mechanics that I can play through again on a different character with a harder mode later.

Or in other words, I gave myself permission to just have fun and it let me focus on the parts of the game which I most enjoy. Next time, I’ll already know the basic storylines so I’ll be able to focus on other sides to the gameplay. I enjoy the combat, I just don’t want to spend too muc time on it right now.

But you can never have that initial experience of just having fun in the game again. Next time through, you cannot help being more knowledgeable. Lines of dialogue that made you laugh out loud in surprise the first time through will only raise a smile. The badass boss that beat you three times before you changed your strategy and smacked it down? You’ll get it first time of course, because you figured out that strategy yourself.

The relaxing thing with a single player game is that you can take your time. But in MMOs, we often rush through the fun parts as fast as possible. It makes me wonder whether all MMOs should make you play through solo first for awhile, to give you space to learn and explore, and only then let you loose on other players after everyone else has had their fun.

 

Games that are fun even when you’re not good at them

The Brainy Gamer was taken by surprise by The Sims 3. He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but was entranced by the way the game lets you define your own goals and tell stories (stories with limited scope are still stories). I haven’t played Sims 3 extensively — I tried it at my sister’s place and thought it was cool but not cool enough for me to pay full price — but one of the things that struck me about the game is that even if you failed totally to meet any goals that you had for your characters, it could still be highly entertaining.

In the link above, TBG describes a rather sad little story that winds up with social services (in the game) stepping in to look after his character’s baby. That’s an absolutely gut wrenching experience for everyone involved if it was a real life incident. That a game can so strongly (and unexpectedly) evoke some of the same feelings is surprisingly cool. The fact that it happened because the player got distracted and didn’t click ‘feed  baby’ often enough takes a back seat, because ‘neglect’ is one of the reasons why social services iRL might also have to step in.

Although I haven’t really investigated The Sims, I’ve enjoyed playing simulation games a lot whether or not I really beat the game. I spent many happy hours on various versions of Civilisation (Civ IV still available for £5/$5 at Direct2drive for the next two weeks, btw) without ever getting much above 25% — I think I’m insufficiently aggressive in game to score high, but I get to Alpha Centauri anyway. So even though I may be rubbish as a player, my civilisation survives and goes to the stars!

One of the appeals of a simulation game is being able to pick your own win conditions and see the game’s score as an optional extra. Another is being able to see your civilisation/ character grow, even if that means it eventually is conquered and dies out. And yet another is the sense that your civilisation/ character takes on a personality of its own, shaped by decisions made by the player but not completely controlled by them.

When we talk about the ease or difficulty of an MMO, it’s easy to put the simulation side of the game on the backburner. But the sim (or sandbox) side of the game is one of the big appeals. The whole point of an MMO is that you progress your character and/or faction somehow and see what happens to it. This is really what people are getting at when they ask for more simulation in MMOs, not that they particularly want rag doll physics or realistic blood spatters. They are asking for a world where actions that are under the player’s control lead to consequences that may or may not be expected.

The most successful sandbox games are the ones where people are explicitly able to pick their own goals and objectives. This has always been one of the great appeals of EVE, that you can choose whether you want to build a business empire, be a pirate, join a huge corps and fight for territory, or whatever else you want. The other side to the game is that actions have consequences.

But PvP is often not as fun or as interesting for the loser as it is for the winner. If I had to play Civilisation competitively against a really good opponent, I’d be wiped out before I had a chance to get to the fun parts. My strategy has nothing to do with competition because I just like seeing how quickly I can get the good technology and what I can do with it (once an engineer, always an engineer).

Having multiple players in a game who are not personal friends becomes competitive, even if they all are on the same team. People constantly compare themselves with each other, even if they aren’t actually PvPing. That’s not a bad thing, people like to compete in different ways.

But even though I’m not interested in no holds barred PvP style simulations, I’d still like to see more options for players to create their own goals in a living world. Where even doing something suboptimal could lead to interesting and fun gameplay. I’d like to see devs stop being afraid of emergent gameplay, and less railroading and being nudged towards the raid boss of the week just because it’s there. I’d like more games where even if you don’t reach your goal, you can be rewarded by finding out what happened.

Are there any games that you like even though you aren’t good at them?

Is crafting meant to be fun?

Some of the best fun I have had with crafting in games has been where it was unusual to be a crafter so people would come seek you out to make commissions.

I think this is quite close to the original concept for crafting in MMOs. It was based on the medieval idea of the crafter as someone who made items by hand and might become well known for their crafting skills. Fantasy literature is also full of famous weapons and the people who made them. And I think that back in those days, new subgames were put into MMOs as much for thematic reasons as for gameplay.

So there is this notion of crafting being something that you could use to make your character different. Something that you could possibly do as an alternative to adventuring. A rare skill that might make you useful or desired in a community. Plus you could make items that you could sell to make some gold.

It has changed a bit since then. Modern MMOs tend to assume that everyone will take a crafting skill, and point you towards trainers fairly early on in the game. They also often split the skills between making things and gathering thing. And it’s fairly common that gathering skills and selling materials via an auction house or vendor becomes a staple money maker in the game for players.

For me, crafting is a bit schizo at the moment because it’s actually two different things.

  • Making stuff. Possibly creative handmade crafting skills. Crafter can distinguish themselves by what they make. Possibility for both crafter and client to make their character more unique involving one of a kind or rare items.
  • Selling stuff, or running a business. Probably involves selling commodity goods, may also involve producing them, in a production line type of way.

MMOs do the second part tolerably well (it varies from game to game, EVE is probably the high water mark for would-be virtual industrialists.) They do the first part very badly.

Which is unfortunate because it’s the first part which really fits into the fantasy settings that are so ubiquitous in the genre at the moment. You don’t really imagine production lines in Tolkien.

The problem with crafting rare goods

Crafters being a rare breed is very interesting from an immersive point of view, annoying from a buyers point of view, and extremely fun from the crafter’s point of view. It’s nice to be sought out for your skills.

Problem is, why would crafting be rare? Only because it’s tedious, time consuming, expensive to skill up, dependent on rare drops or starting conditions (eg. 1/100 characters starts out with potential for crafting) or otherwise inaccessible to the majority of the player base. So if we want crafting to be rare, it probably won’t be fun and accessible for most players.

You could imagine a game where crafting is fun, but most people will find it more fun to go kill stuff. I think EQ2 toys with this design and it seems to work well from what I have seen. Both crafting and adventuring are time consuming, and you probably don’t have enough time to do both. Given that choice, most players will choose adventuring but the ones who don’t can become (rareish) crafters. That would solve the problem of how to keep crafting rare without making it needlessly dull and time consuming.

To make this work, devs need to really put more work into crafting. It has to be a complete game in itself. An alternative to the rest of the game, and not something that was just tacked on at the last minute. That’s a very tall order for something that is going to be a minority interest. Free Realms has fully featured minigames for crafting, which I thought were good fun. It’s just that there’s not much of a way to sell things to other players and you can buy stuff for real cash that’s better. So they got the crafting down quite well, but there’s no real reward for it.

But still, I think players would enjoy being able to make more unique items, even if the uniqueness was just in the look. It would be cool if particular crafters could build up reputations. I’ve been told a few times that Star Wars Galaxies had a really good crafting system that allowed for a lot of crafter customisation. I don’t have personal experience with that, but it’s something I’d like to see developed further.

I also think that a lot of crafters would enjoy it if the crafting side of the game could be less dependent on the adventuring side. It’s fine to buy goods from adventurers that can only be gotten in instances or from nasty monsters. But forcing the crafter to level and go get it themselves isn’t the way to make crafting more fun. Until crafting is more recognised as a separate playing style in itself, it’s never going to really take off.

And I honestly believe that there are a lot of players –- especially people who enjoy crafting in real life (yes this would include a lot of women, I expect) – who would be very open to trying it out in a game and might really enjoy it and produce some awesome virtual goods. But it’s going to need some brave devs who accept that not everyone wants to go kill monsters or delve deep  into coding (a la Second Life) to really make it sing.

How about those production lines?

The actual process of crafting is typically pretty dull. There are some exceptions to this but it really is usually a case of have the materials handy and click the red button. Then watch the green line. If you’re lucky you will be playing a game where you can get it to keep crafting the same thing until all your materials are used up (that’s the production line). So you can go get some tea and feed the cat, maybe read a chapter or two of a book or catch up with Torchwood while you are waiting.

This is not actually playing the game in any meaningful way. It would be better to let players do it offline. It’s more to do with resource management and trading than with actually crafting anything so it would be better to treat it as a separate minigame.

And allowing players to put a production line in place isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially if the alternative is going off to read a book while the game gets on with it.  But it shouldn’t replace the more intensive process of producing a rare, handmade item.

Crafting doesn’t have to be tedious

I don’t think crafting needs to be dull. We don’t need artificial game mechanics to keep crafters rare. And rare, desirable goods don’t have to be ones with potential for unbalancing stats. It might be enough just to focus on letting crafters … craft. And letting traders … trade. And letting industrialists .. err… do industrial stuff.

But treating crafting and the economy as a one-size fits all second thought is missing out on a huge wodge of players who would love to play that game.

Why we need killers to show us how to have fun

Sara Pickell wrote a brilliant post about MMOs, and the struggle between companies trying to sell them to us as goods vs services. I’ve tried to come at this from a different angle before, but she does it far more eloquently than I did.

But there was one paragraph that made me stop and think (and she’s referring to the Bartle player types here – achiever, explorer, socialiser, killer):

The primary audience of any product will always be the achievers, those who want it for it’s own use and to excel within it’s use. The secondary target would be explorers, those who are interested in seeing it in it’s entirety. You may still want some socialites to build buzz for you, but they are more likely to strain your system without seeing very much content so their presence is more a marketing investment than anything. Killers are last place, to one extent catering to another audience is always a good thing, on the other, killers are more likely to drive away other players or cause harassment issues. Killers are probably only given serious representation now because they simply make up one of the largest minorities in MMOs.

I think it is commonly held (by non-killers) that the ‘killers’ (ie. players whose primary way to have fun is by attacking other players) are a negative influence on the genre. They’re the griefers, the min-maxers, the trouble-makers, the forum whiners. They’re the ones who will drive other players away by corpse camping them for hours and then flooding forums with illegible leet smacktalk. They’re the kiddies, the guys who just don’t know how to play nice with others.

But all virtual worlds involve competition

When you get more than one person into a room, in real life as well as in a game, they will compete with each other. It may be subtle, it may be non-serious, but they will compete for any resource available.

The idea that a virtual social world utopia would be completely free of negative vibes is ridiculous. Social competition is some of the most bitter, vicious, cut-throat gaming that it is possible to have. And it’s largely based on trying to be popular. Being bitter about not getting enough attention from ‘the right people’. Networking. Trying to make yourself useful. Cybering for extra perks (it happens a lot).

You know what guild drama can be like? You know how people fret if they feel left out of a clique? Imagine an entire virtual world which is all about guild drama. I’m not saying that it can’t be fun – people are extremely fun. They will surprise and entertain you in ways that no mechanical NPC ever can. But we don’t have a good ruleset for social competition.

If the killers know one thing, it is how to compete

And this is where the killers come in. The way they compete is far simpler. You kill someone. Or you get killed. You exchange some smack talk. You go back to base and start again. At the end of the session, they leave the game on the table.

Compare that to the extended guild drama bitchfests which can leave people in tears or depressed for hours. Which is the most healthy form of competition, really?

For all that devs and other players complain about the killers in our games, I wonder if we need them there to teach us how to play the things.

When good enough is Good Enough

If a PvE challenge is too tough, you can go away and do something else and come back later when you’re tougher and have better gear. In Japanese-style RPGs (which let’s face it, is where most of the quest based play was taken from) you can do this by wandering around and killing random monsters that turn up just for that purpose.

So you can control your own difficulty by deciding just how overpowered you want to be when you take on that fight. Think of how many times you’ve gone back to a lowbie area to one-shot some annoying mob that made your life hell a few months ago. Just because you can.

At end game, this doesn’t work so well any more. There are limits there on how much more powerful it is possible to get. And it also takes a lot more time and effort to pursue end game gearing. So an end game challenge can be genuinely difficult in a way that means it can’t (yet) be beaten by being outgeared.

You  balance how hard you want the fight to be with how long you want to spend preparing for it. Or in other words, you have two resources to balance: your time, and challenge difficulty. The more time you have, the easier it gets.

So what does this have to do with being good enough?

I’ve been reading blog posts recently discussing the concept of ‘good enough’ with respect to raiding. Gevlon argues from a pragmatic point of view that some people are too competitive for their own good and as long as you are good enough to pull your weight and do your job, it’s enough.

This is very much where I stand also. If you’re good at assessing what sort of challenges you can take on at your current level, then you can save a lot of time and effort. Why put in extra work when you don’t need to?

This attitude can be interpreted as being lazy, or being satisfied with being mediocre. It isn’t necessarily either of these. You’re certainly saving some time, but whether or not it’s lazy depends on what you do with the time that you had saved. (This is aside from it being just plain weird to accuse people of playing a game lazily.)

I value my time, and leisure time not spend grinding instances is time that I can spend with my spouse, hanging out with family or friends, time to catch up on BSG DVDs, time to blog, or just time to catch up on housework. All of these things are more important to me than having best in slot gear when I know I’m already good enough to fill my role in the raids we run.

From this perspective, ‘good enough’ is all about balancing out resources. My time, my fun, my in game goals. Fun is an odd quantity, not necessarily at odds to the other two, but it’s worth mentioning because ultimately games are played for fun and if you aren’t having enough fun, you will burn out (or realise that you aren’t getting your money’s worth and go play something else).

As an aside, I do wonder if we’d value our time more if we had to pay by the hour rather than use a subscription model. I’m not sure any RMT games use this model but for any that did, I’d expect the player base to be very focussed on efficiency.

This sense of ‘good enough’ is important to project managers and raid leaders also. Groups (both in game and at work) gain morale from successfully completing tasks. Time is always a limited resource. So is manpower. iRL, budgets are also an issue. And as a leader, you have to make the judgement call, ‘Are we good enough with what we’ve got now?’

And if you get it right, then it’s a success for the whole team. Not a lazy success, not a mediocre success, but a smart and efficient success.

Efficiency, the best efforts from the least time

One of the things that marks out the real hardcore guilds in game is their dedication to efficiency. Not to doing crazy stunts just to prove how hardcore they are, but to achieving the best results in the least time.

It isn’t necessarily the 5 raids a week guys you should be looking to for true hardcore. It’s the guys who keep a disciplined 2-3 raids a week. And are able to clear content with fewer hours invested into the raids.

This is not a blog about being hardcore, since I’m not. But I appreciate the challenge of doing the best you can with the resources that you have. It doesn’t mean that you can’t improve, any good raider will always be striving to do better, and if you aim for efficiency then you want to make every minute count. But at the end of the day you have to ask: Did we succeed in our goal? Was it fun? Did I stick within my time budget? And as a raid leader, you really don’t want to make people stick around while you wait for that last perfect person to log in if there’s someone else around who wants to come who will make the raid possible.

Oh yes, sometimes good enough is absolutely Good Enough.