You’re playing it wrong!

No multiplayer game ever survives contact with the players. This is as true for traditional card and board games (and pen and paper games, if those count as traditional these days) as it is for MMOs, but there is a huge difference in scale.

For example, has anyone ever played a game of Monopoly without some house rules? In fact, has anyone read the actual rules? I sometimes wonder if every family has its own set.  Note: Monopoly is such a poor game  that I’d advise anyone to PLEASE USE YOUR OWN HOUSE RULES IF THEY MAKE IT MORE FUN

Running pen and paper games, it’s also  a given that players will always think of something that you didn’t expect them to do. But when I’ve been running those sorts of games, a large part of the fun for me is finding out how players will surprise me.

I’m fascinated by player behaviour in MMOs,  particularly in ways we find to play the games that the devs never intended. This could involve:

  • exploits
  • players cooperating on goals where devs expected that they would compete, or vice versa
  • roleplaying in games that aren’t designed around that
  • exploring instead of achieving, or vice versa
  • soloing content that was designed for groups
  • buying gold instead of farming it
  • powerlevelling
  • griefing
  • building elaborate social structures that weren’t foreseen by designers
  • any kind of mixmaxing that devs didn’t spot
  • focussing on unexpected goals (eg. the naked warrior, or people who collect pets as their endgame)

As soon as you bring real players into the picture, the sky’s the limit. Some of these emergent behaviours get labelled as cheating. Players are told ‘you’re playing that wrong’. Or ‘you’ve broken the game.’ Some exploits get fixed, some players get punished, life goes on.

But is it really possible to play the game wrong? It is understandable that if you present a player with a game — and no rulebook — they’ll assume that anything they can do in game is reasonable.

Even if there is a rulebook, as per Monopoly, they’ll feel comfortable tweaking it the rules just don’t reflect how they want to play.

Some players will not make this assumption. Instead, they’ll assume that the way they play is reasonable and everyone else is wrong. You’ll sometimes see complaints about perfectly legitimate power levelling from players who think it removes the fun from a game.

So in any case, it’s easy to feel confused. The huge MMO sandboxes that we play around in are welcoming to lots of different styles of play. You can do what you like. Except when someone decides that you were playing it wrong. That rock on which no mob could reach you? You thought it was designed like that, but what if it was a bug? That’s an exploit right there. That super powered combo you built your character around? Sorry, not intended. It gets nerfed next patch.

It is absolutely part of the MMO genre that if players find a way to be a little too optimal in game, steps will be taken to fix it. For the sake of balance. And because in order for the game to be fun for the majority, the optimal route through needs to be a ‘fun’ one and not a dull grindfest? Well maybe.  In any case, devs have their ideas of what is fun and since you are paying them to produce fun games, we assume most players are down with that.

So when is an exploit not an exploit?

Most people are aware of when they are exploiting an unforeseen bug in the coding, or even outright cheating. When these bugs are fixed and the exploits closed off, the majority of sensible players nod, remind themselves that these games are complicated, and may even think in passing how much more fun MMOs would be if you could just dump the hardcore achievers with their minmax attitude, exploits, gold buying, and tendency to focus on the ends rather than the means.

But sometimes it simply isn’t that clear.

Recently City of Heroes introduced a mission architect. You could create your own instances, your own plot arcs, your own supervillains and enemy groups, and other people could run through and give them marks out of 5. You could even earn xp and pick up achievement badges inside architect missions. It was (and is) terrifically fun.

Then someone worked out how to create a mission that was optimised for xp. It was called meow. It wasn’t just optimised for xp, it was crazy xp. You could create high level mobs with virtually no health. You could use high level mobs who were effectively rooted to the ground. You could use bunches of high level mobs clustered around a bomb that players could explode.  Here’s a  video of a player in a meow farm mission.

Other people caught on quickly and before you knew it, the channels were full of requests for groups for meow missions. They zipped up levels like wildfire.

And then NCSoft decided that enough was enough. Positron stepped in (as reported by Blog of Heroes) and stated clearly that this was going to stop. Meow missions would be banned, and:

Players that have abused the reward system egregiously may lose benefits they have gained – leading up to and perhaps including losing access to the characters power-levelled in this fashion

So the punishment is not just for the people who designed the missions. But possibly for anyone who ever used them. Even if it was just to grab a couple of quick levels to get a new ability, to help a friend or partner, or just to get high enough level to access some of the cooler zones.

Ardua@Echoes of Nonsense has a good rant about this. He helped his wife get her character a couple of levels via a meow mission because he was tired and it was late, so that she could get a pretty cloak and a pet that would help her to solo and now she risks being banned for it? And this is in City of Heroes, a game with no significant endgame.

I don’t have a problem with devs banning exploits and cheaters where they find them in games. But when it was down to their mistake and no one was really hurt by the extra powerlevelling, what’s the point in coming down so hard on all the players who may have taken part?

Maybe instead we should ask: why were people so keen to powerlevel in CoH? Is it because the midgame is boring as heck? Is it because some characters just don’t get fun before they collect a full set of abilities at higher levels?

Yes there will always be some people who exploit loopholes just because they can. In a way, they get their fun by outsmarting the devs (and good luck to them). But when you find a large proportion of the playerbase jumping onto the bandwagon, you have to ask what’s wrong with the game at a more fundamental level. Because if it was fun in vanilla mode, people would eat vanilla.

And if it takes hours of boring gameplay to get the character you want, then maybe the problem isn’t with the meows.

On another note, I’m still impressed at whoever thought to design powerlevelling missions. Someone recruit that guy as a level designer, stat. S/he obviously has a solid understanding of game mechanics and how players behave in game.

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