The Shape of Things to Come

One of the things that caught my eye about Ensidiagate (thanks Matt for coining that term) was how different people responded to the notion that some tradeskill might give an advantage in a raid encounter.

Most longterm WoW players reacted immediately, saying Blizzard would never do that intentionally – which is true. It is completely against their current philosophy. But there was a time when that type of obscure puzzle solving strategy was considered fair game by designers.

Remember Naxxramas? How about that boss which required the use of mind control on the adds, a spell given to only one class in the game. Going back to DaoC, I remember an encounter where the raid needed to stop some adds from walking into the centre of an area. The adds were immune to almost all crowd control. The eventual solution? It involved stealthers using a distract rotation; every time the mob was targeted, it paused for a moment and turned away from the stealther.

Even later on at Lady Vashj, I remember people using the tailored nets to help slow adds.

Back in those days, we would have loved an encounter that required a tradeskill trick to complete. Discovering that strategy would have been brilliant fun, and rewarded real out of the box thinking. And imagine discovering that your crappy tradeskill turns out to be really crucial for a boss fight?

This is not excusing Ensidia for ignoring an obvious exploit (yes, I think it is increasingly obvious that they knew something was up, they’re a very smart bunch), but MMOs these days are moving swiftly away from puzzle solving. There’s not much wriggle room for out of the box thinking in PvE these days in theme park games, and too much of it will lead to exploits. Instead you have to solve the problem in the way the designers intended.

I was thinking this on reading in the Escapist about the Bioware founders’ favourite games of the last decade. I see a lot of shooters in those lists. And only one true puzzle game, LittleBigPlanet.

We know that puzzle based encounters are problematic in MMOs, because of all the spoiler sites and tactic guides, but I wonder if raids were more fun when we felt that any strategy was fair game and that being creative might be rewarded. Has the internet really killed puzzle games? World of Goo and Professor Layton have been popular enough, players still like this sort of challenge and are happy to pay for it.

And I wonder how much of the Ensidia leadership is simply mired in the past, when tanks were warriors, paladins were alliance, and out of the box thinking got you world firsts.

My exploit; your lateral thinking; his emergent gameplay

The game I am most looking forwards to playing at the moment (yes, even more than Diablo 3!!) is Scribblenauts. It’s a DS game that has been described as an emergent puzzle action video game – the slogan on their site is Write Anything, Solve Everything! The big lure is that you can use anything you can think of to solve the game’s puzzles. It’s set up to reward pure out of the box thinking.

Like many gamers, I love this kind of challenge. If I’m presented with an in-game world, I don’t want to be limited by the programming as to how I can interact with it. If I’m in a bar, I want to be able to pick up a chair and throw it at someone.  Or how about bribing the bartender to spike their drinks. Or maybe sneak into the cellars and engineer a power cut. Anyone who has played pen and paper games will be familiar with this kind of thinking :) I don’t want to be told – err, you can’t talk to the bartender, we didn’t think of that! Or – you can talk to the bartender but only if you want to ask for a beer.

Obviously, video games have their limits. They are limits that can only be stretched by very creative programming, or letting you interact with real people who are able to hop outside the box with you. The strengths of these games is in the way they can model games with very fixed rules like chess, Tetris, or MMO combat, or let you explore a virtual environment as long as you don’t want to interact; and probably not in how they model AI or human NPCs.

Well of course hardcore guilds find exploits!

One of the big news stories out of WoW at the moment is that Exodus, the guild who got the first ultra-hard mode Yogg-Saron kill have been banned for 72 hours for finding and using an exploit. Here they talk about it in their own words.

The ban looks to me to be punitive, setting an example to the rest of the hardcore guilds. It’s also rather arbitrary – as they say on their site they aren’t the only guild to have used questionable tactics on the first kills in some encounters. Blizzard really should sort itself out and get these bans under control. All they had to do here was fix it and remove the achievement from Exodus (or change it to something thanking them for finding and reporting the bug, which is what I would have done if it was my decision).

In any case, it’s not surprising if hardcore guilds find exploits. They explore the raid content deeper and more thoroughly than anyone else, especially when they are searching for a world first kill. Yes, the exploits shouldn’t be there in the first place but no test team in the world is as motivated as a ultra-hardcore raid guild.  Part of exploring new raid content is trying to think outside the box, trying to second guess the devs, trying to figure out what you have to do to solve the encounter.

So the games encourage people to use lateral thinking. But  not too lateral because that might be an exploit.

Having said that, these guilds are perfectly aware of when they find something that makes the encounter a lot easier than intended. And again, I think this is where the temporary ban is meant to send a message. If you find something and you know (with your experience of being a hardcore guild) that it’s not right, then you shouldn’t use it. That’s a rule for people who thrive on breaking rules, in games that encourage you to break rules cautiously to solve new puzzles.

I’m reminded of a hardcore guild leader in DaoC who noted that when he was leading a new raid, they’d do whatever it took to get the boss down (that was Gideon of Servants of the Lake, if anyone played Alb/Prydwen and remembers them). That’s what being hardcore means.  They weren’t cheaters – just they liked to win, and they liked to think outside the box and prided themselves on being good at it.

So do they want us to think outside the box or not?

The answer is not really. But players clearly have a strong appetite for being given more freedom in how they solve puzzles.

I thought it was interesting that there have been a few ‘exploits’ involving people using adds from one encounter to help beat another one (usually by stealing buffs or something like that). It’s not completely without precedent. In vanilla WoW there were raid encounters which could be made easier by using encounters outside the raid (remember the fire resist buffs from UBRS and the various world buffs from Onyxia and ZG?). I’ve always thought it was a shame that they never really followed up on this.

Why should an instance basically be a load of corridors leading between rooms with bosses in it, with each boss encounter totally self contained? Wouldn’t it be more fun if you could use something from earlier in the instance to help solve a puzzle later on? Might make the raids more coherent storywise also. That hardcore guilds keep trying to do this should be a sign to designers that there’s a hunger for it as a legit tactic.

So, bans aside, I hope that designers do look hard at the exploits and get ideas for new raid encounters from them. Because if there’s one thing that players are very very good at, it’s doing something totally unexpected.

And until then, I’m looking forwards to seeing if I can break Scribblenauts (wonder if it knows what ‘great cthulhu’ is).