Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 03, 2010
 
Do you even want freedom?

In a forgotten corner of an old thread on this blog there is a debate raging between Nils, Nils, Nils, and a bit of me, in which he argues that the Dungeon Finder is bad, because it allows him to optimize the fun out of World of Warcraft. I think that is a totally valid argument: A developer offering a game with different modes of gameplay must count on players choosing the most efficient path en masse, and ignoring less efficient activities even if they are more fun. WAR very much suffered from that in its first few months, because doing PvP scenarios was so much more efficient than doing public quests that in the end the public quests nearly died out. And in WoW it is certainly possible to ignore much of the game now, and just sit in Dalaran all day and queue up for dungeons all day long.

Thus from this point of view we could demand from a developer to restrain a player's activities in order to FORCE him into a more varied and fun content, instead of letting him optimize the fun out of the game. Quote Nils: "Rules need to restrain me. That's what they are there for. That is what the game company is there for."

But there is a Catch-22: To prevent players from optimizing the fun out of everything, the game has to be what some people dubbed a "theme park", not a "sandbox". Or in other terms, the game can not give the players much freedom, and certainly not a huge range of infinite possibilities, because in a range of infinite possibilities some are always more efficient than others. Developers *can* balance a game by creating rules that restrict what a player can do, and make all activities equally efficient. But that only works for a limited number of different activities, each of them being strongly guided.

In a completely different game, Magic the Gathering, the developers where asked the question: "Card X sucks, why do you put such a sucky card in the set?" And their answer was that if all cards were equally strong, players would not have the freedom to make the mistake of choosing a less good card. Picking cards for your deck is more fun if there are good picks and bad picks. If every choice you can make is equally valid, the choice becomes meaningless.

Thus the idea to create rules to prevent one activity to be more efficient than others clashes with Sid Meier's theory that a good game is a series of interesting decisions. Instead of the players optimizing the fun out of the game, you'd pass that task to the developers, and it would be THEM who optimize the fun out of the game.

So what do you really want? Freedom, including the freedom to make bad decisions? Or a game which prevents you from optimizing the fun out of it by making all choices equally efficient? Me, I prefer choice. Because I have the self-control to prevent myself from optimizing the fun out of a game, and explore less efficient but more fun other options. Games shouldn't be terribly unbalanced, but there should be enough difference in efficiency of different paths to allow players a meaningful choice.

[I have the feeling that this is another post in a strange series of posts where syncaine and me agree on something.]
Comments:
I think that's one thing that wow has learnt over the years: don't put in useless choices(by useless i mean a choice B that is always dominated by choice A in every situation)

For choice of, let say cards, to be meaningful AND "equally effective", each card has to have a situation in which they are able to triumph over other cards. The rarer said situation appears, the more overwhelming it should be in said situation.

You could see the same situation in guild wars and the upcoming catacalysm talent trees. In guild wars, there were very few skills that were absolutely useless(above definition). Very often, in conjunction with another skill it could bring out it's true power. In wow, a recent example being a talent that enhances a healing spell when used on others (selfless healer), and this was in the Ret(dps) tree.

Ah but what do i know, i'm not a game designer. I do think however that incorporating perfectly useless cards seem to be bad design, since over time, newbies will be burnt by said bad cards and the veterans will just ignore them.
 
First, I'd like to thank you for stressing that you partly agree with me. That is a good habit when discussing. It prevents your partner from thinking of you like a frustrating bouncing ball that evades any agreement, by suddenly starting to discuss another facet of the topic.

Secondly, I think there is a logical problem in your post and I am pretty certain other readers see it, too.

At first you talk about rules, constrains, that are good, because they allow you to experience fun, while trying to achieve something in the game in an efficient way. For example the rule that you can quest in WOW and get crap green items, or could conveniently queue up to get much better blue items (while leveling), is a bad rule.
Here, the problem is that players are incentivized to play the game in a certain way that is not fun. It is called 'optimizing the fun out of it'.

To make your point, however, you shift to MtG. Here you talk about the possibility to make a wrong decision. But that decision in MtG is not wrong, because you optimized the fun out of it, but rather because you are bad at optimizing.

I agree that a game needs to allow you to make mistakes at optimizing, like picking the wrong specc. Of course, I agree.
But I disagree that a game needs to allow you to make mistakes at 'having fun'. That would be a game that allows you to optimize the fun out of it.

Please read this comment carefully and completely. Thanks :)
 
This topic suffers from the perennial problem of one person trying to to tell another person what "fun" is.

Let's take Nils' example of questing and being rewarded with green items vs queuing in the dungeon finder and being rewarded with blue items, which he characterises as being "incentivized to play the game in a certain way that is not fun".

This makes several suppositions:

that doing dungeons using the finder is not fun

that doing quests is fun

that fun is predicated on receiving a superior reward .

None of these are undisputed facts. Fun isn't gravity; we don't all experience it universally or identically. Personally, I don't find either questing OR dungeon-finder groups in WoW to be "fun". I find the quests tedious and repetetive and the dungeons stressful. That, in part, is why I no longer play WoW and am unlikely to play it again.

I fail to see how either of these activities could easily be made more fun for me by changes to the "rules". Making the quests more rewarding wouldn't make them more interesting. They'd need to be re-written, which is a change to content, not rules. Dungeons wouldn't be less stressful if they were made more difficult to access, as they used to be. They'd still be stressful, but also less accessible.

None of which means that I couldn't or didn't have fun in WoW. I had plenty of fun pottering around, exploring, hunting creatures that I liked to fight, etc etc. I play all MMOs pretty much the same way, regardless of the rules. I don't believe it is possible for the designers to "optimize" fun out of the game for me because I know how to make my own entertainment.

What designers can do, and indeed do all too often, is minimize the fun out of the game by providing insufficent content. Yes, I can make my own entertainment, but I prefer to have something to make it with. Thus games like EQ2 which provide a really vast array of building blocks for me to arrange have much greater potential for Fun than games with much more focused content, like WoW.

If the result of optimization as described by Tobold's comment "And in WoW it is certainly possible to ignore much of the game now, and just sit in Dalaran all day and queue up for dungeons all day long" is that designers feel they no longer need to add more content to the world, put more toys in the toybox, then yes, optimization will, indirectly, lead to less fun for me. The impending cataclysm, however, suggests that this will not be the case even in WoW.

To conclude, so long as designers keep adding the non-optomised content, they can provide all the "optimization" functionality they like. Those whose fun depends on optimization are welcome to it. I'll carry on playing the way I always have and just ignore them.
 
Clarification: When I wrote

For example the rule that you can quest in WOW and get crap green items, or could conveniently queue up to get much better blue items (while leveling), is a bad rule.
Here, the problem is that players are incentivized to play the game in a certain way that is not fun.


I meant skipping of all content but dungeons and constantly queuing for the DF while waiting in a city next to the trainer. I did not talk about a balanced use of DF and the rest of the game.

I do have some reservation about DF especially when it comes to immersion and teleports, but this topic here can be discussed on its own.

A game mechanic that incentivises an unbalanced approach to the game is a bad mechanic.
 
Let's reformulate Nils' statement in a twisty way:

"The rule where you must sit in queue for 20-30 minutes and risk that group will not kill any boss for blue items, or item you need will not drop, or you will be outrolled, but in the same time you can freely quest by yourself on your own leasure without much risk and with guaranteed choice of green quest reward, is bad rule".
 
I don't need deliberately useless abilities, gear or choices. If devs want to play with that concept then they should be providing enough information and tutorials about mechanics that a player can figure out good choices by trial and error in the game and not need to spend hours looking at other people's databases. I feel very strongly about that.

I would however prefer to be able to choose between good but specialised abilities, and less good but broader ones. I would also like to be able to choose bwteen different playstyles.

But choice about whether or not I want to take the most efficient route to a goal is fine. More than fine, really. If I choose to dawdle around while levelling and explore, that's fine. But I don't want it to cripple my character later.

So I'm in favour of choice, but within certain bounds. I don't like the notion of putting in abilities just to trip people up.
 
I like souldrinker's reformulation. :)

In my personal opinion dungeons were under-utilized in World of Warcraft before the Dungeon Finder, due to the issues souldrinker lists: Too hard to get a group together, too much time lost traveling to places you already traveled to a hundred times, too much "time lost" if you happened to have a bad group.

Thus for me the Dungeon Finder is a rule change that balanced World of Warcraft BETTER, giving better incentives and more convenience to exactly the part of the game which was underutilized before. It turned WoW from a massively single-player solo questing game into a massively multiplayer dungeon game.

Nevertheless I still play solo when I want to, travel when I feel like it, quest instead of doing dungeons. It is my own responsability to play the part of the game which is fun to me, and not follow the most efficient path to least fun.
 
My mistake...

I made this about the DF. Let's ignore it. It was just an example, ok ..?

|:
 
Two possible ways out of this conundrum that you bring up:

A. Have different sorts of activities give you different sorts of rewards. For example activity A gives you better equipment, activity B gives you more gold, activity C is good for grinding faction, etc. etc. etc. So it's optimal to do a mix of things.

B. Have reward values to tied tighter to the market instead of giving you non-market-based rewards like XP so that if activity A gives you better look than activity B then a lot of people will do activity A and flood the market with that loot until the rewards for activity A and activity B (roughly) equalize.
 
Here's an interesting notion: What if developers worried about XP balance as much as class balance, and it was equally efficient to level using quests, the dungeon finder, or battlegrounds? If I get some cake, I want to eat it too.
 
So this all comes down to how the advancement structure of wow affects various player types.

If you are an Explorer it is the worst of all worlds. You are penalized for wasting time in every concievable way.

If you are an achiever its perfect. The developers give you rails to stay on if you want to be first to the top of the hill.

Everybody else gets stuck in some semi enjoyable but frustrating mess.

I personally miss early game where I could explore in total ignorance of the fact that I was handicapping myself for the fun activities.
 
@ David

the problem with any kind of rewards system is that there will always be an optimal way to game the system. Before Wowikki and other sites like that this wasn't as big a problem. But now the path is laid out publicly before beta is over. There are no hidden valleys or undiscovered things for a new player. Thus the expectation of the player base that you get your ass to end game as efficiently as possible.
 
Unfortunately, the people who optimize the fun out of the game will usually be the "best" players. In a game where optimizing is most rewarded (darkfall, eve, etc), those players will be the msot powerful and the highest rewards will be limited to such players. This is a contradiction at the root of MMO design as it exists today, and one that I think dooms the genre if radical changes aren't made.

I think "sandbox" games should move towards more tightly controlled sandboxes where the rules are simple to grasp, well enforced, and promote fun play. Interesting (decidedly sandboxy) situations will then arise organically out of different players trying different ways of achieving higher goals together or in conflict.

Sandboxes don't have to be directionless and they also don't have to be open. I don't think directionlessness and openness are possible in a sandbox game that appeals to more than just the tiniest niche that a game like Darkfall fills (EVE has most of its reasonable subs residing in fairly non-sandbox high-sec).
 
Dungeon Finder is good in the context of WoW because Blizzard was leaning towards making the game a glorified Dungeon Runners for a long time, and franky, I'm glad they just went all the way with it. People play WoW to 1) play with their guild/real life friends 2) collect shit.

I would wager that these two reasons, while obviously not covering EVERYONE, cover a really large percentage of WoW players. Blizzard just made it so people can still accomplish (2), while (1) isn't an option. Its made WoW a better WoW, but a worse say...EQ or whatever old MMO people want to feel about nostalgic about today.
 
@evizaer

Your definition of the word sandbox is a little too 'tight'.

I mean, what is *not* sandbox about Empire space, compared to WoW-type games?

I think when people want "sandbox" in their..gameplay, economy, etc then EvE's Empire space is the pinnacle of that. The entire economy and gameplay is an open sandbox world with player-driven everything pretty much.
 
GAK!,

I just read through the comments Nils was mentioned... and he did not mention EVE! not once! In fact it was only mentioned 3 times! and not by NILS!

Is it the end times? Is this a sign?

BTW Nils,

Your comment:
"First, I'd like to thank you for stressing that you partly agree with me. That is a good habit when discussing. It prevents your partner from thinking of you like a frustrating bouncing ball that evades any agreement, by suddenly starting to discuss another facet of the topic."

Is pretty profound and got me thinking... good thought
 
You must read an extremely selective kind of post on this blog if you think that I mention EVE often, Angry Gamer.

I don't even play it.
 
The MTG example Tobold gave is incomplete. MTG cards tend to split into 'good', 'bad' and 'fun'. The 'fun' group depends on the player and consists of cards that are not power cards but have a nifty ability that a player can utilize in a fun way. Dragons and other big creatures fall into that category a lot.

In WoW terms there is the optimal progression path, the bad progression path and the fun progression path. If you like doing quest then the fact that using the Dungeon Finder is more efficient to gear up does not matter since you rather do the fun activity.

At this point in WotLK I still do a ton of quests that I do not have to because they are just fun to do. If a choice is fun then it will still be used no matter how 'useless' it is deemed by the optimizers.
 
Going deeper into this part of your post:

To prevent players from optimizing the fun out of everything, the game has to be what some people dubbed a "theme park", not a "sandbox". Or in other terms, the game can not give the players much freedom, and certainly not a huge range of infinite possibilities, because in a range of infinite possibilities some are always more efficient than others.

Not all activities must be equally rewarding. It is enough if they are roughly equally rewarding.

WAR had the described problem, because the (felt) exp gain difference was immense. Had it been small, it wouldn't have been much of a problem.

---

About the Theme Parks & Sandboxes:
A sandbox can have many, many different things to do and to influence the world with, because its main reward is social reputation of other humans.

And since humans are rather smart (especially when it comes to social things like who is worth ones respect), the system balances itself.

Sandboxes with strong (WoW-like) character progression do not exist or miserably fail for that reason.

One last thing: David, once again, mentioned something very important: A market place can be used as an auto-balancing system.

This is the real reason for an AH - not that people like to dvelve into the complex economics. Most do not.
 
Interesting discussion about an unsolvable problem.

Until Nils last comment horrified me - "social reputation of other humans" I don't want to have to keep up with an everchanging 10,000 people on my realm. In fact, most of the time, I want to play solo.

-------

Could you trust the Market? What if there was a multiplier to XP/gold? Say if a lot of people were running Nexus, it could pay 70% of normal and if everyone did it could pay 25%. Whereas a weird quest in outer Ashira could pay 400%. (tune #s to taste) There is no law that Quest #11,436 has to always pay the same 13,200 XP listed in WoWHead

-------

Another point is that useless choices are much worse the more permanent they are. Prior to LFD, traveling long distances for a fail group (looking at you Ally SM and ST) was a bad, unfun choice but it just cost time and pain; it's over when its over. Bad talent specs can be fixed for 25g after you read EJ. But say there was a "bad card" class e.g. warlocks always underperformed mages. You can't fix that if you create a warlock, you are gimped forever.
 
I've always said that the DF tool should have been tied to players at the guild level.

Back in Vanilla WoW, and even into TBC, a player was able to build a reputation amongst the top end guilds which garnered them almost constant invites to dugeon runs. Guilds functioned together and even built alliances(consisting of several guilds) that allowed the casual raiders a chance to see end-game content. The DF tool basically took away this comradery mechanic and turned the game into an even more impersonal event. Add to this the non-existance of crowd-control, e-peen stroking dps meters with everyone fighting to be on top, and you get what you have now.

I cant imagine how players will react if Blizzard actually brings back crowd control in the Cataclysm dungeons, forcing them to communicate pull/fight strategies amongst themselves and/or suffer actual wipes on occasion. It's probably going to be a long run home to mommy...:/
 
The difficulty is when a player has an idea of a "fun" activity which they cannot yet accomplish, and there is an optimal "non-fun" path to get there. This leads to an unpleasant non-fun grind.

For example, say the "fun" activity is an icc-10 or icc-25 raid. To qualify, one must gear up. The optimal path is to run 5-man heroics to get Triumph badges. So, if you don't like pugging, or don't have a dual-spec class that can heal/tank, the optimal path will be non-fun.

This is similar to how in BC, one needed to farm Alterac Valley because PvP gear was the optimal way to acquire gear needed for raiding. Could Blizzard create several balanced gear paths? I don't know; I'm not a game designer.
 
>a series of interesting decisions

I find that there's more interesting decision in choosing between flavor rather than function. A mage with 3 dps specs can have a blast deciding HOW they want to dps. Someone jumping into Northrend getting to choose Howling Fjord or the Tundra - both zones with the same goal and similar rewards - makes the decision on what scenery or story they would rather experience.
 
Are you mostly a solo player Tobold? Because your response to me doesn't make sense when you realize that optimization or the lack of it effects your dealings with others.

The freedom to make bad decisions may also shut you out of group content and handicap you in dealings with others. Like in PvP. Your less efficient options will wall you off in group-based activities. It's the classic gimp scenario.

I think you do need to have choice, so I agree with that, but its vital that the choice's powerband is restricted the hell out of. Sandbox games do not get this, and in them you almost always see FOTM builds and a lot of the options ignored because of it. Give choice, but cap power variation.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
"Picking cards for your deck is more fun if there are good picks and bad picks. If every choice you can make is equally valid, the choice becomes meaningless."

This only holds true if the "bad picks" are not clearly bad picks by looking at them in a vacuum. Once you get in the competitive environment and can figure out which cards are bad through the metagame, the choice becomes fun because you have learned something. You have gotten better. Your skill in Magic the Gathering has increased by 1. Ding.

This metaphor doesn't apply to cards which are clearly so terrible that no sane person would ever include them under any circumstances. These cards are what I like to call Buy More cards. By including them in the sets, it requires you to buy more packs of cards to get the ones you want, thus boosting their profit margins.

I also strongly disagree with the sentiment that making all of the choices valid makes them meaningless. It does make it meaningless as far as which is more effective, but it makes the question of "Which do you find more fun" to be ten times more meaningful and also becomes the only useful criteria for choosing. And having fun is the entire point of most games.

(I deleted the previous comment because of a mistake that changed the whole meaning of a part of it.)
 
I agree that games usually involve a tradeoff between freedom and balance. What you want to avoid is a strategy so good that it dominates all others. Ideally, you want to offer a broad range of choices that are reasonably balanced.

And balance is particularly important in MMOs because of the social effects. If the Dungeon Finder is the optimal way to play, then you can expect it to be hard to find a non-DF group. So if you play an MMO socially, there may be situations in which you're effectively forced to optimize even if you don't want to.

I don't play WoW, but I suspect that's where part of the controversy around the DF comes from. If it's the optimal way to group, then network effects will lead to a lot of DF grouping and almost no DF grouping, so even those who don't like it will have trouble avoiding it.
 
If you are playing a game where you are not having fun, why in the hell are you playing the game?

Q.E.D. most of the people using the dungeon finder are having fun. The ones who are using it and not having fun need to seek psychiatric help.

But this is really mt major problem with the whole MMO genre; every single game seems designed to feel more like a part time job with short bursts of real fun, but instead of money you get a cheap and easy feeling of advancement.
 
[Tobold] And in WoW it is certainly possible to ignore much of the game now, and just sit in Dalaran all day and queue up for dungeons all day long.

That's pretty much what WoW boils down to now... a dumbed down express route to end game catering to a common denominator with nothing uniquely special between 1 and 80.

Overall, a useless crafting system that is far too easy to master and pointless to use.

No non-dungeon/raid content between patches.

Easy xp grinding to reach max level.

Zero group co-ordination in all dungeons ie cc.

There should be friction to slow players down, therein you will find the rules. All the friction has been erased from WoW.
 
If you are playing a game where you are not having fun, why in the hell are you playing the game?

Q.E.D. most of the people using the dungeon finder are having fun. The ones who are using it and not having fun need to seek psychiatric help.


That's not the whole truth.
If you like a game just enough to play it (considering other games) it is absolutely reasonable to dislike one feature of it.

Running the DF 100% of the time might be a 6/10 for you. But not having a DF might be a 8/10.

With group pressure and because circumstances matter, the DF makes you worse off, but you still play WoW.
 
To me, the 3.3 dungeon finder was what killed my interest in WoW.

There's no question that instances were virtually unutilized early in WoW's history because Blizzard strongly resisted any sort of LFG system. But to me the golden age was the time just before 3.3 when instances were easy to find on your server with a very capable LFG tool and chat, but there was still some sense of a world. You did instances with people you actually might see again and could use reputation or just someone's inane spamming of the LFG channel to screen out idiots. Yes, it might take 10 minutes to find a group instead of instantaneously. But I rarely finished my dailies with a flag up before finding an instance and with easy access to global LFG chat, you could even play an alt.

The 3.3 dungeon finder more or less removed any pretense that WoW was an MMO and that was the end for me. I play World of Tanks frequently right now, but it's not an MMO. It's a game matching lobby with some player account (not character) advancement features. That's more or less what WoW is now except the game matching lobby is graphic and called Dalaran.
 
Finally taggling the last piece of this blog post:

Thus from this point of view we could demand from a developer to restrain a player's activities in order to FORCE him into a more varied and fun content, instead of letting him optimize the fun out of the game. Quote Nils: "Rules need to restrain me. That's what they are there for. That is what the game company is there for."


The developers do not need to 'FORCE' players into varied and fun content. In fact, they need to allow the players to do whatever they want. When all activities are roughly equally rewarded, the players are free to do what they like best. There is, also, no need to limit the number of possibilites, as it is sufficient if rewards are roughly equal.

Giving players more opportunities that are roughly equally rewarded is not "FORCING them into fun an varied content". It is the other way round.

You skillfully twisted the truth in this paragraph.
 
Nils, either stop the paranoia, or stop posting on my blog. If you say "Rules need to restrain me", and I talk about rules forcing you into something, that is obviously exactly the same thing.

You could argue that I misunderstood what you mean by "restrain", but don't accuse me of "twisting the truth". The only one twisting the truth is you.
 
I waited a while before answering to allow us to cool down again. I have spent some time trying to understand your last comment and why you were so annoyed by mine.

Firstly, I do not understand your reference to paranoia. Perhaps that is some English proverb that I am not aware of.

More importantly, you seem to have written something in your blog post, not because you believe it, but because you thought that it follows from what I had written. You already guessed that this was a misunderstanding, but did not care to ask. (?)

I am guilty of not understanding that. I thought that this post represents your opinion, not a reduction ad absurdum of something I wrote, and you subsequently misunderstood.

To clarify the misunderstanding:
When I say that rules should restrain me, I mean that rules should e.g. not allow me to teleport. To remove such rules, just because they restrain the player, is ridiculous, because that is what rules are there for, in the first place: The constrain players. I wrote more extensively about that in my blog.

Since my statement that you "skillfully twisted the truth in the one paragraph" was based on the (apparently) wrong assumtion that you wrote down your own PoV, I apologize.

However, I once again, get the feeling that discussion is more PvP for you than PvE. I discuss to find the truth. Sure, sometimes it becomes heated and we are all just human, but that is the ultimate goal. I do not discuss to 'win' over my partner in the discussion. Do you share this point of view?
 
However, I once again, get the feeling that discussion is more PvP for you than PvE. I discuss to find the truth.

Funnily enough I get the complete opposite impression. Countless times I have discussed games and game design philosophy in completely abstract and unpersonal terms, only to get a reply from you where instead of debating my arguments, you turned the debate into something personal.

e.g. a phrase like "You skillfully twisted the truth in this paragraph." does not add anything to the debate except a personal attack component. Your comment was perfect BEFORE you added that as a final paragraph.

I do react to such personal attacks. You could argue that I react BADLY to such personal attacks. But then I'd say there isn't really a good way to react to them, whether I just delete your comment or reply to tell you that you shouldn't comment like that or I counterattack, each possibility is equally bad.

I do hope that you understood my original post as debating your ideas, not your person. That is what discussion should be about. The various personal remarks like "you lied", "you're incompentent", "you know nothing", etc., etc. only derail the discussion, which is why I'm asking you to avoid them.
 
I shall be more careful then in the future.

It is always a shame when a long text is ignored by a discussion partner, just because of some detail that he took as a personal insult.
 
The key point is that the path of least resistance for players is usually solo playing (questing).

If you want to get people playing together (and as MMO designer you should do - these social structures create product stickiness and therefore subscriptions), you will need to provide an incentive for the players' commitment.

You can argue that DF went too far incentivising 5 mans. But levelling in TBC was massively soloplayer for the average punter.
 
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