Tuesday, May 03, 2011
Fear of the sub-optimal
Having quit World of Warcraft, I now have a lot of time to play other games. Over the years I missed a lot of great single-player PC games, because I was too busy with MMORPGs. Thus it was only recently that I unpacked my still shrink-wrapped copy of Mass Effect 1 and installed it. I started playing, and very soon I had to make decisions on how to distribute skill points for my character. And for a moment I was paralyzed by fear: What if I click on the wrong skill to improve? I simply don’t know which is the “best build”, so what if I choose something sub-optimal?
I’ve been playing computer role-playing games since the days of the Amiga, and I’ve never had that sort of fear of the sub-optimal. It is something I acquired in MMORPGs. My very first Everquest character was a Halfling druid, and based on the in-game description of the stats I had distributed his starting stat points in part into intelligence. Of course “everybody knows” that A) Halflings aren’t the optimal race for druids in EQ and B) druid spells work on wisdom, not intelligence. Thus after playing that Halfling for weeks and learning how EQ works, I deleted him and replaced him by an Elven druid with the proper stats. It has been downhill from there for the next 10 years. One of the key moments that lead to the decision to quit WoW was one of my guild mates chiding me for wearing a sub-optimal piece of gear in a heroic.
There is a wide-spread cult of optimum efficiency towards a single goal in MMORPGs. If you don’t have the same goal, Gevlon will compare you to a pedophile. If you have the same goal but aren’t on the optimum path towards it and moving sufficiently fast, you’re only a moron & slacker. Now Gevlon is just the most disgustingly outspoken high priest of that cult, but the attitude is everywhere. “No, you’re doing it wrong” is something a MMORPG player gets told all the time. Unless you get vote kicked before anybody actually telling you what you do wrong.
The very definition of “playing” involves trying out stuff for fun. The absence of real consequences allows the player to experiment, because it is “play”, and not serious or “for real”. The fun is in learning what works and what doesn’t work, not in getting the answer from somewhere and just applying it. Good games allow you to play around, to make those famous “interesting decisions”, which are interesting because one solution is not obviously better than another. My fear of the sub-optimal in Mass Effect is unfounded: If I make a “wrong” decision, let’s say neglecting defense over offense, the game itself will give me gradual feedback, by making me notice that I’m more often heavily wounded. Until I get the clue and put points into defensive skills at the next level-up. It might even be totally viable to play the whole game through with very different builds.
In principle that isn’t much different in MMORPGs: I could try out different talent builds, and see what works best. The times of Everquest where I needed to reroll to respec are over, I have a lot more freedom to reconsider in modern MMORPGs. Unfortunately that only works in the less interesting single-player part of the game. The multi-player part is not only much harder and thus a lot less forgiving of sub-optimal alternatives, but it is also packed full of the harshest possible critics: Your fellow players. In the case of World of Warcraft, Blizzard made a serious mistake by arming those critics with the ability to inspect you in every detail. If players could opt out of the armory and their gear and build being inspected by others, at least some individuality would be possible. But with millions of players having crowdsourced the best solution, these days you simply aren’t allowed to “play” or think for yourself. The devious cult of efficiency is working in a vicious self-enforcing way: Efficiency makes players want to rush through that dungeon as fast as possible, and that forces them to require from all players in the group that they are optimally equipped and prepared. There is no room for experimentation or “learning how to play”, in spite of the sad fact that the single-player game spectacularly fails at teaching you the skills necessary for the multi-player part. There is no room for actual “playing”, you are just supposed to be a robot doing optimal moves in perfect execution. Where is the fun in that?
One escape from that trap is starting to play a brand new game. It takes the player base a while to figure out the optimal builds, and as long as nobody knows your build is sub-optimal, you can have fun trying out different things. But if the game is sufficiently popular, that happy state of affairs will only last a few months. Once the bulk of players arrives at the level cap, and challenging endgame content looms, players will get less and less forgiving of their group members doing anything sub-optimal. Thus to permanently escape from the cultists of efficiency, one needs to play either single-player games, or multi-player games which are less targeted at the Achiever Bartle-type. Which is why I’ll be playing single-player games or more exploration-based MMORPGs like Glitch in the coming months.