A long time ago, in the esoteric pen and paper RPG world of GURPS (don’t worry if you have never heard of it), somebody wrote a gaming supplement called GURPS Vehicles. It contained rules for players to design and ‘build’ any kind of vehicle they could imagine, from any genre, and then use it in their GURPS game. These rules were physics based and very detailed, and you really needed a spreadsheet to work it out properly.
It was written by a very talented game designer called David Pulver, but I think even he was surprised at the very specific fanbase who adored his vehicles book, given that there really wasn’t much for roleplayers in it at all. Communities grew up based around sharing their vehicle stats and descriptions with each other, without actually playing the game itself.
And many of the regular GURPS players shunned the book, on the grounds that it was way too complicated and – frankly – unnecessary in a RPG where the GM could always handwave any interesting vehicles as necessary. It was almost as if the frenzy of design and optimisation was a separate game in itself.
Why optimisation is not the enemy
There has always been a healthy player base for games or puzzles based around optimisation, where you were able to sit down and carefully design your character/ vehicle/ simulation and then drop it into a simulated world and see what happened. Then tune it a bit for better performance, maybe even make it fight against other people’s simulations to see whose was best. This is just one step away from all the cross-over fanfics you ever imagined – so what happens exactly when Doctor Who fights Dracula? Is Thunderbird 1 faster than the X-Men’s fighter jet? etc etc
Mechanical optimisation is part and parcel of a very simulationist method of playing games and resolving any conflicts.
The alternative, more narrative/ dramatic method, is to decide in advance which of the characters/ vehicles etc should win and then tell the story appropriately. If the stats don’t work as intended, then you ignore or handwave them as necessary.
So – one of these methods lends itself far better to computer RPGs (hints: it’s the simulation model.) A computer is very well able to model a fight as a set of dice rolls with mathematically modelled entities. It’s not so well able to wing a story.
However, optimisation doesn’t necessarily make for a great gaming experience, because most of the optimisation is usually done as a perquisite to the game. So for example, with GURPS Vehicles, you sat down for a few hours with your spreadsheet and designed your amazing creations, and only after that could you play with them. Plus you couldn’t easily tweak them in play without another spreadsheet session. It’s better, I think, to look at optimisation as a separate game in itself, and a good optimisation game will not be easily boiled down to a few ‘correct’ solutions.
Another challenge with a good optimisation game is that you may not know 100% in advance what challenges your model will have to face. In a fighting game, you may not know what sort of opponents you will face. In a racing game, you may not know much about the terrain in advance. Because if you did, you’d just optimise for that environment and you’d be back to the few correct solutions again.
So in a computer game, I’d assert that optimisation is more fun as a minigame when you’re facing randomised challenges. That’s what makes the hybrid designs more interesting and the specialist designs more of a risk.
Why optimisation is the enemy
I commented on Nils’ post yesterday that I thought optimisation is one of the big enemies for players in MMOs these days.
This is because they’re not really well designed optimisation games in the first place. Optimisation becomes a tedious step of looking up builds/ gearouts online and copying them semi-blindly. Now, precisely who finds this fun? Is there really any player who derives any kind of fun from copying a spec from a webpage? (Aside from the relief of not having to worry about it so that they can get on with the parts of the game which they like.)
I don’t think so. The fun in optimisation is in designing your own character, trying it out, and then tweaking to make it work better. It’s not in being told “fire mages suck this patch, noob.” Or “if you don’t have 5 resto shammies in the raid, you might as well stay home!” And yet MMO design – particularly WoW endgame design – has become so minmaxed that players (and raid leaders) who don’t use the optimal loadouts are at a disadvantage, and are seen as a disadvantage to any group they are in. A side effect of this is the ferocious emphasis on balancing the various specs. When tools are available that can rate the performance of any given spec to within 0.001% AND content is tuned for minmaxers then what can you expect? So MMO devs have managed to create an optimisation game that isn’t very fun for the majority of players. Well done, guys.
Right now, far from having any fun with optimisation, if there was a button in the game that said ‘optimise my character’ that would tweak talent trees, inform the player of the optimal dps rotation, and assign some optimal gear for the current raid then most players would HAPPILY press it.
It used to be that part of the fun of optimising your MMO character was actually collecting your gear, which might have come from a variety of different sources. That too has been largely optimised out – a combination of gear lists, token loot, known instance and crafted loot and readily available information from websites makes even this feel more like a chore. How much fun is it really to gear up in WoW these days? It’s a combination of running random heroics (with relevant tabards for rep also) and whatever you can buy from the auction house.
On top of this has been tacked a fairly fun raiding model where how people actually play their characters during a fight becomes more important. This to me is the more fun side of gaming optimisation, where you have to react a bit more quickly and flexibly to things going on in game, and optimise your strategy/tactics, not your build.
Optimising as a part of gameplay is still fun. But optimising talent trees is not a fun part of current, tightly tuned MMOs. Sure, you can play with those talents to your heart’s content and have some fun messing around, but the choices on offer are not very real. And it can be a heartbreaker. What exactly happens in a game such as Rift if my favourite soul is not the best dps spec? Right now – nothing, my guild won’t care and it won’t stop us downing monsties (thanks Hawley). How about in 6 months time when everyone is minmaxed to the hilt and other people can check your specs?
I still think there is a lot of fun to be had from tweaking characters and character progression, but the most fun gameplay is that which happens as part of the actual session, not outside the game itself. And my ideal MMOs will be far more about how you actually play than how you spreadsheet.