Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Game environment

Over on Potshot's blog the interesting question is discussed of "how much (developer created) environment is needed or desirable to make a game enjoyable?". Was Everquest better than modern MMORPGs because the game environment was relatively rudimentary and we filled the gaps with our imagination?

I wonder how much the enjoyment of a game environment has to do with our expectations. Many blogs recently complained about the ending of Mass Effect 3, and one player even filed an official FTC complaint against EA Bioware over that ending constituting "false advertising". People expect certain things, sometimes impossible things, and then get unhappy if their expectations aren't met. My theory is that we liked the Everquest game environment because we didn't have too high expectations against which to measure the game. Compare that to the mountain of expectations a new game like Star Wars: The Old Republic has to measure up against, and it is easy to see how Everquest had it easier to satisfy people. I can already predict the comments about Guild Wars 2 not living up to the hype, because frankly I think the hype level for that game is already well in the impossible expectations region.

But I can only encourage the mentioned solution of creating your own game environment and playing a pen & paper roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons. At least one person, the Dungeon Master, gets exactly the game environment he wants and expects, because it is him who creates it. And if the Dungeon Master is any good and knows his audience, he'll create a game environment which is enjoyable to his players. Which is a lot easier if you have an audience of 6 or less instead of hundreds of thousands or even millions of players.
In my opinion the complaints are a bit strange. I haven't completed ME3 yet, I'm guessing I'm about halfway through.

For me it's pretty much the same as with any movie. I might not like the ending but that's how the movie people made it. Should we then put pressure on them to make an alternative ending?
I have no opinion directly on ME3 as I haven't played the series past the start of ME1. But I agree that the 'hype train' and inevitable explosion of player complaints is so oft repeated now.

I've watched many games launch, including Warhammer Online, Aion, STO and more recently Rift and SWTOR. I've seen the build-up of hype not just from the developer but much moreso from the fan community themselves. They whip each other into a frenzy of anticipation on the pre-launch forums and then savage the game viciously within a short space of launching.

Very strange behaviour given that MMOs never launch with all features for all players. If you look at any major 'AAA' game a year after launch it'll probably be a very different beast from the at-launch version.

You're also spot on with D&D or other pen and paper RPGs. I have plenty of good memories from MMOs sure, but the best of those is nothing to a good D&D session with friends, some drinks and snacks and our own imaginations let loose.
Better yet, as a DM, have your own character as one of the adventurers. In this way you can also play in the world you created. I'm not sure how common this is now, but it was pretty common when we had several people in the group who wanted to DM, and took turns. Their personal characters were always in play when they were DM'ing.
I think this ties back to your post about game journalism, too. The more we play, the higher our expectations become.

Frank Rose discusses in his book The Art of Immersion the idea that audiences are becoming spoiled. His focus is audience-reactive program changes on television (like killing two very unpopular characters on Lost because the audience complained so much). When I discuss this with my students, none of them see any problem with that, and some of the more business-oriented ones say that it's the most sound business strategy. Others, though, point out that if we always get what we want, there'll never be any more surprise. I haven't played ME3 at all yet, but I've read a bit about the ending. SURPRISE!

In regards to making an environment for your players, remember to invite them to some extent to contribute to the environment as well. When they ask if something's there, something that wouldn't be encounter breaking or too game changing, I virtually always say, "Sure!" or "There is now!" Sometimes it leads to outlandish situations (I was once asked in a junkyard if there was a mostly useful wheelbarrow, which I said yes to (why not?), and the players proceeded to pick up a ton of junk to take with them) sometimes it leads to high drama (I can't think of anything, to be honest, but it's happened), and other times it turns out to be nothing.
I have completed ME3, so I'm familiar with the subject. Without mentioning any spoilers, the vocal opinion about the ending is completely justified.

Bioware probably didn't have enough dev time to implement it properly, since it not only features multiple plot holes introduced in the very ending, it doesn't also make sense from the PoV of the character (the obvious choices the character would have made are not valid) and provides next to no closure for the story. Also, the whole plethora of decisions over the course of the trilogy make almost no difference in the end. I should mention that the "best" (if it could be called such) outcome is possible only with DLC or via playing multiplayer (which is quite fun, but should never be a part of singleplayer experience!).

Remember how in earlier cRPGs like the first two Fallout games (and even the Bioware's Dragon Age series) you had all the outcomes of your decisions presented to you (at least in textual form)? Well, this is not the case as well. You get next to no info about what happened later in the universe.

On reading all that you could think that ME3 is a horrible game. No, despite it being somewhat simplified in terms of dialogue options, I would wholeheartedly give it praise as a worthy end of the trilogy... if not for the very conclusion, which is riddled with issues that negate all the previous gameplay.
While a MMORPG GM doesn't have as much freedom as a DM, he still has the task of keeping the people that inhabit his world entertained using whatever he has available to work with.

It doesn't really matter how pretty a game world is, but how much you (the player) -means- in it that matters.

If I am one of a million dudes punching worms to collect 10 scales or something then my overall value in the place is pretty minimal.

But if I can go find the worm nest and ELIMINATE IT FROM THE GAME then yeah. That makes me feel pretty epic. Then the other players will go "WTF, no more worms how do we level?" and the NPCs will be all "oh no, my scales!?"

That's where having skilled and dedicated event GMs comes in as each action can spawn a variety of consequences, all of which they should be prepared for.

Pen and paper adventures have things unfold based on what the players do, and while MMORPGs -should- follow that, they do not.

MMORPG plots are generally based on what the players are scripted to do as a whole (often with no "fail" condition) or alternatively a higher office instruction to increase sales.

So, was Everquest better? No idea. Never played it. But if it let players control the course of the world then hell yes.
In my opinion the exact reason why ME3 is considered "bad" is that it's engaging.
The thing is, the fans are heavily invested in the universe (not in transaction sense, in emotional and psychological sense), and when the outcome haven't met their expectations, nerdrage ensued.

You know that's nice? The rage here shows that people really _care_ about the fictional world. That's why carefully designed universe (doesn't matter if it was designed "nowadays" or "then") is better than Everquest-ish generic-ness.

Disclaimer: I don't like Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age (I rather prefer Planescape and Arcanum), but I honestly think ME3 is a game design achievement.
Yes, the game is an achievement, completely spoiled by the ending! Yes, people do care about the characters and the universe, and their feelings are completely trashed by the ending. Here's a good read on that topic (a psychological analysis of the plot/ending, contains ME spoilers):
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