Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 02, 2013
Playing sub-optimally

Raph Koster's Theory of Fun is that games are fun because they teach us things. I was recently thinking about a different angle of that: For me games are more fun when I still play them sub-optimally, when I haven't understood the game perfectly yet. Because for example back in the first days of World of Warcraft we still did crazy stuff like forming groups with random strangers to do quests, or going on raids without making a selection of who was allowed to come and who wasn't. And that was fun, even if it wasn't perfectly efficient. Over the years I learned a lot of things about World of Warcraft and MMORPGs in general, and certain sub-optimal modes of play were discarded as being not efficient. There are millions of ways to play a game sub-optimally, but only one way to play it optimally. The more I learned about the game and the more I approached optimum efficiency, the less options I had, and the less fun I had.

Unfortunately that loss of fun is portable. I gave up on the re-released Final Fantasy XIV very, very early in the beta process because I noticed that fighting with my spellcaster in FFXIV was the same as fighting with a spellcaster in every other MMORPG I had played for the last decade: Start out at maximum range and pelt the mob while it comes running towards you. If you get a mix of spells with different damage, range, and effect on enemy movement it is blindingly obvious for anybody who played a similar character before in a similar game on what the optimum sequence is. There is no fun of experimentation or learning things any more. And because there is only one optimal sequence, you end up pressing the same buttons over and over in every bloody combat until you are bored to death. (And for FFXIV beta I played the console version, where the button sequence was annoying.)

The hope for the future of MMORPGs is more dynamic worlds, because that means that you DON'T always know what will be happening, where exactly the monster and the treasure is, or how to best defeat them. At least, that would be the ideal of a dynamic virtual world. If any virtual place just goes back and forth between two possible states, players will quickly have learned both possibilities, and we're back to boring optimal behavior.

What I really would like is games in which rewards are also changing dynamically. Why should your hundredth orc give the same xp as the first one? Why should there be still treasure in the orc village after you killed every inhabitant five times over? Dynamic rewards have important consequences on how players behave: In Everquest players didn't move, because it was better to "break" a spawn and then camp it all day. In World of Warcraft players move because of quest rewards, but because everybody has the same quests, people all tread on the same paths. I'm currently playing the Borderlands 2 DLC Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, and it has a parody of a scene in it where you need to make other "players" rage-quit in order to be able to get credit for killing a monster that respawns only every 10 minutes and is camped. That is funny in Borderlands 2 because it is so true: Other players in MMORPGs are frequently regarded as competitors for the same limited resources, and not as potential allies and new future friends. Moving away from static quests with static monster spawns and static quest targets towards a dynamic reward structure that doesn't punish players for grouping would go a long way to make these games more interesting, more social, and ultimately more fun again.

I'm sitting here tabbed out from FFXIV right now. I've been playing MMOs as long as you have, give or take. So have the two people I'm playing FFXIV with. We have spent many hours now in almost constant conversation in our Linkshell, asking each other questions about how this or that mechanic works, pondering on the way to do one thing or another, sharing information we've discovered about ways to play the game. We are all very experienced MMO players but we are having to think hard and often just to learn the basics.

This is just at the start. By the accounts of most people I've heard describe the way the mechanics of the game at higher levels, the complexity increases considerably. FFXIV was apparently designed with the first fifteen levels intended as an invisible tutorial aimed squarely at people for whom it might be their first-ever MMO so it's hardly surprising that the basic fighting at that stage is simple.

I'm not making any claims for FFXIV being particularly unusual or original in its mechanics but there are few if any MMOs in which whatever complexities there might be can be discerned in the first few levels. I'm finding there's plenty to learn.

Oh and on Ralph Koster's Theory of Fun, the reason games are "fun" is because they allow us to forget for a small time that we are all going to die one day and probably sooner than we would like to think. That's the reason behind most non-essential human activity, dress it up how you will.
Tobold: " For me games are more fun when I still play them sub-optimally, when I haven't understood the game perfectly yet."

As you said, it is just an itterarion of having nothing new to learn.
It is why WoW endgame has changed from Ragnaros few adds once in a while to watching multiple things and dancing through different phases.
It is the reason for nostalgia and "vanilla/tbc/wotlk/.. was the best", depending on when you started.

"The hope for the future of MMORPGs is more dynamic worlds, because that means that you DON'T always know what will be happening, where exactly the monster and the treasure is, or how to best defeat them."

That can only work if you are able to constantly put in thousands of possibilities or the incredible hive-mind that the playerbase is will find the optimal way.
You cannot prevent min-maxing.
If you add a combo system you may end up with problems like in Diablo 3 where you have near unkillable mobs.
Randomising spawn locations can provide some fun but will end up with perfect routes for discovery.

Afterall overcoming the challenge will diminish the fun you had trying to come up with a solution. We are unable to prevent that.
But current systems *don't* punish you in any way for grouping. You punish yourself by trying to be efficient.

Of course the other thing that happens is that developers produce formal systems for pugging, and take the fun out of it.
Well, apart from the fact that there are things like "casual guilds" where people play non-optimally all the time, the question is: are you able to put up with others playing non-optimally? Because my experience is that people are very tolerant of their non-optimum, but a lot less tolerant of other people's non-optimum....

As for dynamic worlds, it won't work. Not just because it's technically very very complex (impossible?), but also because evolving worlds are not good if you cannot be there most of the time. In a dynamic world, playing the week-end would be like playing the same character in a different world every time. BTW the examples of "dynamic" that you give are also very uninteresting....
I'm a bit sad you gave up on FFXIV so early. The crafting system is pretty gosh darn unique with two resources (one determined by your character, one by the item you intend to make) and two goals (one that you must reach to complete the item and one that gives a higher chance at making a better version of that item) that combine, when you have enough abilities, into something that has a TON of depth. I was very much looking forward to your opinion on it.

But like battle, it too takes about 15 levels into it before you have enough options while crafting to make interesting choices. Even more so when you get multiple crafts to 15 since you can cross-class crafting abilities. So you not only have all the choices native to all crafts, but a personal selection of other craft's abilities...

I really do enjoy the interplay between everything. Do I want to maximize how much Progress I get with my Synthesis abilities so I can spend more durability with other moves? Do I want to restore durability or decrease its usage for the next few steps? Do I want to spend a small amount of CP on a move that gives 80 Quality with a 70% chance, or a large amount of CP on a move that gives 160 Quality with a 90% chance? For THAT choice do I care about CP efficiency or durability efficiency? Do I leave enough durability for two uses of the 90% synthesis move to complete the item or do I push it to them limit and only leave enough for one synthesis and risk the 90% failing?

Also, the idea that crafting is decoupled completely with battling is attractive. You could theoretically be the best damn blacksmith on the entire server without ever having killed a single monster past unlocking the ability to craft.

Oh well...
I think the most fun I had in WoW was in the beginning when I didn't know what I was doing. It was not the mechanics. I knew pretty well how to fight optimally. It was the quest and reward structure and not caring about being efficient.

I remember teaming up with another new person who played a hunter and she couldn't figure out how to finish the quest to get a beast companion so she just did without. We had a good time and it didn't bother me that we were not efficient at all.

I think for me a lot of the fun was just in the world. Every quest sent me walking to a new location. It was an exploration. I remember trying to get from Stormwind to Ironforge and not knowing about the tram ride. So I looked at the world map and said hhmmm it doesn't look far just through this next zone(Burning Steppes) then we can get there! Needless to say we didn't make it but had a great time trying.

Later on I became like most players you hear about. I did quests quickly and moved along. I still had fun but at this point I started to like challenges. The most fun I had at this point was when doing dungeons and something went wrong. The tank disconnects and we try to keep going anyway or the healer is new and has no clue how to play well and so on. I loved having groups with people that didn't play optimally because often the rest of the group could do enough crazy stuff to make it work anyway. Of course all the things I liked in a group seemed to make most people really mad at the other people. That was the down side.

The point I'm making is that what is fun in a game for a given player can change over time. Or maybe I'm just rambling.
+1 for Bhagpuss Theory of Fun

I am more optimistic than Camo on AI. The StoryBricks tech that EQN licensed seems like it is starting down an interesting path. NPCs have algorithms that try to maximize - EQN's example is that the Orc re-spawns will move if there are not enough travelers coming by the road or if too many come by and kill the NPCs.
I wonder what would be the minimum viable mmorpg with a dynamic world. What do we need?
I'm a bit sad you gave up on FFXIV so early.

Oh, I only gave up totally on the PS3 version. For the PC version I still have a secret weapon: A still shrink-wrapped collector's edition of the original FFXIV, which in principal should allow me to play the new version for a month. I picked up the collector's edition for $9.95 from a bargain bin when the first version failed and thought it might come in useful one day.

But from what I read up to now, the new FFXIV had a bad start and doesn't allow you to actually create characters because all servers are full. So I'd better still wait a bit.
Striving for efficiency often optimizes the fun out of activities I like. Take sports like surfing, beach volleyball, snowboard, mountainbiking, stand up paddle. First people do it to goof around and have a good time being challenged by nature. All the time avoiding taking it too seriously. Then come competitions, sponsors, leagues, pro sports. All fine and dandy, but the fun of "just go out and do it" is then gone.
I try to keep that fun in my activities, but sometimes it's a real struggle.
@Tobold Yeah, sadly that is probably for the best. You can still create characters on the newest servers, but the game still has serious login issues right now.

I'm ecstatic you haven't potentially dropped it forever though. I can wait for your thoughts.
I'd like to see a more realistic environment. If you had to actually use the environment during combat, that would basically add a lot of keep each battle interesting. The combat in a FPS is very simple: press the left mouse button. But the use of the environment is what takes the simplest possible combat and makes it interesting even when you've mastered it.
I kind of play sub-optimally because I try to avoid guides. I like to figure things out myself. In WoW it's deliberately made easy for anyone to figure out a class rotation, but there are some complicated things such as optimally reforging items. Also, you can choose to not read up on the fights. Just figure out what to do in the middle of battle. For me much of the fun comes from learning. If I just read everything in guides, it is just a matter of putting the time in. That is work to me.

You mentioned Borderlands 2. I am interested in your experience with the difference between True Vault Hunter Mode and Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. I find the experience between the two completely different and a bit... off?

Just thought I would ask about your experience to see if I was missing something. :-)
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