Friday, June 19, 2009
Via The Ancient Gaming Noob I found this article in Wired pointing out that in the 80's video games often forced you to restart from the beginning when you lost, and jokingly proposing to define "hardcore" games as those that work in a similar way. Your raid wipes in World of Warcraft? All restart at level 1! The exaggeration shows that it is obviously easy by creating something recognizably "hardcore" by simply increasing the punishment for failure. And obviously nobody would want to play such a game nowadays.
The other extreme of that scale is Progress Quest, a MMO which allows you constant progress without even requiring any input from you. Or Jade Dynasty, where you can pay the company to not play the game. But even World of Warcraft is extremely close to the Progress Quest side of the scale: Progress from level 1 to 80 (or whatever the level cap will be in the future) is virtually guaranteed, regardless of skill. And in the end game skill is only measured for large groups, enabling some people to be carried.
So Jormundgard poses the obvious question of whether having a higher punishment for failure really makes a game hardcore. Well, it can, as long as you define hardcoreness by being able to reach exclusive content. If every failure sets you back, and you make that setback big enough, then only the most dedicated will ever reach the end. The reason why in World of Warcraft raid content is considered hardcore is because there is a punishment for failure: The raid dungeon resets, so if you didn't manage to get to the end before the reset, you have to start over. If there was no reset, any guild would be able to reach the last boss eventually, just like anyone can reach the level cap eventually.
The disadvantage is that it turns out that players are very risk averse. For example in Everquest going to a level-adequate dungeon was potentially rewarding, but also very risky. You could die somewhere at the end, with monsters having respawned at the start preventing you from getting back to your corpse, so potentially you could lose all your gear. In consequence EQ dungeons were mostly populated by higher level characters farming certain specific mobs for their rare drops, and players of the appropriate level rarely ventured there, in spite of zone bonuses later being added. Not working as intended. If dying really hurts, players don't risk anything, and end up farming boring green mobs instead of something that actually poses a challenge. Even in modern games like World of Warcraft, where the penalty for dying is minimal, players rarely try to push the envelope and go for orange or red quests and monsters. There isn't anything in the game that would prevent them from challenging themselves, but the majority goes for the safest option with the best rewards for the lowest risk of failure.
A completely different progress system is used in chess or WoW arenas, although there are numerous exploits in the latter case. The basic idea of an ELO system is that you have a score which is equivalent to your skill level, and only by improving your skill can you improve your score. In such a system playing it safe isn't an option, because winning against a much weaker opponent gains you very little, and the occasional loss sets you back by a lot. Even playing more than somebody else doesn't improve your score, unless by playing more you actually get better at it. Of course somebody playing a lot of World of Warcraft will equally claim that by doing so he now plays better than somebody who plays less; but of course that isn't necessarily the case, and the Progress Quest system isn't designed to really show the difference between skill and time spent, or a bunch of other factors. Wielding some epic from some raid boss means you were there when he died, but doesn't say anything about whether you were the MVP of that raid, or just trundled along and leeched. Being at the level cap doesn't show how many hours it took you to get there, how often you died along the way, or how well you played.
So to make an MMO in PvE work more like an ELO system and show skill, not only would you need to lose xp on dying, you also would need to lose a lot more xp from dying against easy opponents than against a hard challenge. And easier mobs would have to give significantly less xp than harder challenges. In theory a system could be designed in which everybody's level reflected their actual skill at playing that particular MMO. Why is nobody designing such a system? Probably because players don't really want an accurate measurement of their skills.
People on average, especially men, famously estimate their IQ to be much higher than it really is. That is if you asked everybody for an estimate of their IQ, the average of the estimates would come out significantly higher than 100, although by definition the average must be 100. The same thing applies to video game skills: People, especially men, estimate their video game skills to be much higher than they really are. A progress system which assures them of their superior skills, by making everyone a winner, is more popular than a system which shows who the winners and losers really are. MMORPGs are designed to be positive sum, and extremely hard to lose, so that everybody can feel good about themselves. But in reality the system simply fails to measure skill, and those who boast the loudest about how leet they are, are often simply overestimating themselves the most.