Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
The paradox of progress

Once upon a time a video game ended with some sort of "Game Over - You Won!" screen at the end and rolling credits. And during the game you played the same character with the same abilities from start to finish. While pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons might still be a niche hobby, it certainly had one big effect on the video games of today: In many games you now have a character level, and the game never ends. You might hit the level cap, or finish the story, but that won't get you to the game over screen; you'll be able to continue playing, either repeating stuff or playing other game modes, and keep progressing your character forever by upgrading his gear or skills or something. And I wonder if that eternal character progress thing is really such a good idea.

In the old arcade games you progressed in the game by getting better at playing. People enjoyed that, but the progress is naturally slow. And once you learned the basic skills of video gaming, you already start any new game with a good amount of skill; while you can still progress some, the amount of progress you experience won't be enormous. Adding what is often called "role-playing elements", aka artificial character progress in the form of levels and gear improvement, gives every player more of that feeling of progressing in the game that they enjoy. Maybe you as a player don't get much better at playing, but you character now has more health, more armor, and a bigger gun/sword that hits much harder. As you continue playing, you get more and more powerful.

But there is a downside to that: The monsters or whatever you are fighting get stronger too. And if the game gives you the option to everywhere, you will find that going to most places doesn't make sense: Either the enemies there are too low for your level, or they are too high. There might be a huge open world out there, but you are effectively limited to a small slice of it which corresponds to your character level. And a bigger problem looms ahead: You can't progress that way forever. Because if every level has its level-appropriate zones, the developers can't make an infinite number of zones, so you can't have an infinite number of levels. The devs need to install a system that dramatically slows down progress, for example with a level cap where you can only continue to grow stronger by finding rare pieces of gear.

I have played through all the story missions of Destiny now. But the game is never over. I'm supposed to do various things now, like repeating those story missions at higher level, doing strike missions in a group, doing PvP, doing raids, doing patrols, doing bounties, and who knows what more; all that will gain me new gear, and Destiny even has a system which transforms your gear score into a level. So while the maximum level you can get through earning experience points is 20, I'm already level 21 because I have gear with a "light" score which doesn't do anything but increase the number floating next to my name over my head.

And because Bungie doesn't have much experience with MMORPGs, they failed to make sure that you can *only* gain that better gear by doing the content you are supposed to do. Instead level-appropriate loot drops from every enemy killed in your vicinity, even if it wasn't you who killed it. Google "Destiny loot cave" to see how easily that can be gamed: In certain areas of the game, under certain conditions, you will have an endless quick respawn of mobs. The "loot cave" is such a place, and with at least 2 players you can organize an endless stream of random loot. Sure, rare loot is rare, but if you kill a large enough number of lowly mobs in a short time, you'll get some of that rare loot too.

Those are the points where character progress becomes a curse to a game. People *will* find the quickest way to progress, even if that involves the least fun way to play the game. By adding this artificial progress dimension to the game, you end up killing much of the content that you created, because people tend to ignore the kind of content that is too far from the optimum progress speed. I really wonder whether Destiny wouldn't have been a better game without those character levels and gear progression.

"Character progression" sells explicitly because it's a paradox.

It allows bad players to constantly progress, therefore feel winner. Even a literal AFK-er has the best possible gear in WoW (some rogue made a video of doing all WoW content without doing a single damage, just by leeching on his random team).

Take this away and the bad players couldn't sooth their badness by rewards and quit.
Despite the annoying, misleading acronym, MMORPGs aren't games. They are pastimes. You don't get a "hobby over" notice when you finish weeding your garden or varnishing your boat. You just sit back and enjoy your tidy garden or sail around on your boat until he weeds grow back or the varnish peels and you need to do it over again.

The players who jibe at this are those who, like Gevlon, believe the marketing hype that tells them they are playing a game. It's hardly surprising they get dissatisfied and chafe at all the other people who are just getting on with a hobby.
Despite the annoying, misleading acronym, MMORPGs aren't games.

But how would a progress system make any more sense if we considered MMORPGs as pasttimes? Can you imagine gardening where you are limited to a specific section of your garden because you have hedge clippers +3, with the section to your left being for people with +1 clippers, and you needing +5 clippers for the section to your right?
"y failed to make sure that you can *only* gain that better gear by doing the content you are supposed to do"

I thought you *wanted* that.

Are you beginning to see how 'fixing' things to make them more accessible can end up making them worthless? That's a thesis you've been objecting to for a long time.

I don't know if "hobby" is the right term, but I do agree with Bhagpuss that MMORPGs aren't really "games" from the perspective of overcoming challenges. Maybe "progression simulator" is the most fitting. I think this is another important reason why MMORPGs like Wildstar are flops, because they focus on providing challenge while being poor progression simulators.
Meh, I'm tired of hearing about the loot cave. It's like if people complained that using cheat engine to give yourself infinite money totally trivializes most business simulation games. Or how some game is terrible because it's too easy to wall hack. Games are more fun if you play them right. And other people not playing right shouldn't impact your own enjoyment of the game.

About progress blocking off areas of the game. Didn't we fix this already? GW2 provides an entertaining experience for even max level players in every level dungeon and area. The scaling isn't perfect, but it's enough that you can have fun instead of just running around one shotting everything.

Really, it seems like half the time when people point out a mmo gaming flaw in a new game, I can just say 'But GW2 fixed that years ago, so the new game just has lazy developers.'
I'm with Gevlon in rating MMORPG toys and not a game.

The "progression" for me is beating a boss I never beat before, preferably while having a good time with my guild mates. These rare moments are great, everything else is just like playing with a toy. Passing my free time.
Meh, I'm tired of hearing about the loot cave. It's like if people complained that using cheat engine to give yourself infinite money totally trivializes most business simulation games. Or how some game is terrible because it's too easy to wall hack. Games are more fun if you play them right.

But that is the point: The loot cave is playing the game right. There is no cheat engine or hack involved. It is just a bit of content which gives far more loot than the other bits of content in the game, without cheating.
This paradox is a great illustration of the difference between a "game" like Rift or WoW and a "virtual world" like EvE or Minecraft.

It's a paradox that doesn't really exist when simply surviving, building, owning, ruling, the virtual world IS the game.
I consider exploits and cheats at about the same level. Tricking the game into continually spawning enemies at a fixed point speaks badly on the game design, that it can be done, but also on those who choose to do it.
But it's not tricking the game into doing something. Those mobs are designed to respawn as fat as they are killed.

The only thing people are doing is standing far enough away from the spawn point so that they actually down. The rest is the game working as it was designed.

Anyways Bungie addressed this by making a giant major wave spawn around 30 minutes of players calling the loot cave.

2 players will get wiped out however if enough are there this wave can be killed netting the group even more loot.

Either way though by dying or killing that major wave the area quickly returns to normal and the cave is able to be farmed again until the next make wave.
@Bhagpuss, Tobold:

"Despite the annoying, misleading acronym, MMORPGs aren't games."

"But how would a progress system make any more sense if we considered MMORPGs as pasttimes?"

Hey guys, can you stop having a meaningful discussion in here? I've arbitrarily declared that commenting on blogs is a pastime, not a discussion; only people who have bought into the annoying, misleading propaganda which claims otherwise ruin the peaceful landscape of spammers and trolls which form the backdrop to my relaxing hobby.
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