Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Games, toys, and balance

Lego has no rules other than the rules of physics. Nobody is telling you that you can't but that blue brick on that red brick, or whatever you want. Monopoly has rules that prevent you from doing whatever you want, for example you can't move counterclockwise around the board. That is because Monopoly is a game, or structured play, while Lego is a toy, or unstructured play. The problem is that in some cases, for example MMORPGs, you're not quite certain whether you are playing a game or playing with a toy.

MMORPGs sure have a lot of silly rules. Many of them have to do with the limitations of the engine: Most of the things you see in your environment you can't interact with. You can't pick a flower unless it is of a specific group of herbs, and you have a specific skill for picking that herb. You can't climb a wall, or even a fence. You can chop through a 5 meter high treant, but a vine only as thick as your arm is an impassable obstacle. And the same flying mount can either fly or not fly depending on where you are, and whether you fulfill certain conditions.

The latter is not so much a case of limitation of the engine, but one of game rules. Games have rules mostly to create a structured and balanced environment. In computer games there is frequently the notion that an activity has to provide a certain degree of challenge, and overcoming that challenge is then rewarded. If you circumvent the challenge, for example by installing an aim-bot in a shooter game, you are considered to be cheating, because you get the reward without doing the challenge within the rules. If the challenge is having to get through a bunch of mobs, or using a glider to reach a specific location, flying can also get you to the reward without doing the challenge. Thus from a game perspective it makes perfect sense to only allow you to fly once those rewards aren't relevant to your character any more.

But then of course some people don't consider MMORPGs to be games, but rather toys. Nobody forces you to follow a specific cycle of challenges and rewards. You can just go out and ignore much of the structured play and do something less structured. For example the character I am currently leveling is basically not doing quests. Instead he is visiting all zones and is collecting all pets. And because the xp requirements today are so low, the xp from exploring, pet battles, and the occasional fight with a mob that is in the way is enough to level him. Not a terribly efficient leveling method, but then that isn't really the purpose of the exercise. I sure wished he could fly sometimes, but at level 33 that isn't possible yet. The game gets its rules in the way of my toy.

There certainly are a lot of similar cases, where playing around with the toy that is a virtual world gets hindered by the rules necessary for the game part of that MMORPG. And I wonder if one of the reasons of the decline of the genre isn't that developers concentrated too much on the game, and restricted the toy too much in the process. Toys can have a much better longevity than games, because you don't reach a goal and are done with it. I would very much like to see a MMORPG in which I could interact more with my environment, even if that doesn't serve a huge purpose for the game. While I am skeptical that Daybreak can actually pull it off, the concept of EQNext / Landmark is very promising in that regard. We sure don't need yet another "level to the cap, then raid" MMORPG out there. In the words of Monty Python, it is time for something completely different.

Think of the designer's rules as the laws of physics for the particular game?

I think your use of the word "toy" for sandbox game gets to the heart of why sandbox games struggle to survive in comparison to theme parks. It is almost a taboo word for adults. When we grow up we forget how to play with toys. Even when adults do embrace sandbox toys we force an end goal on ourselves: We have to create a bridge in Lego or build a castle a Minecraft or paint a picture with that paint box. For some reason it is not acceptable for adults to splatter paint or bricks or pixelated blocks around just for the fun of it.

If this desire for goals and rules is an unalterable part of human nature then perhaps the best we can achieve is to allow players some limited freedom to create and enforce their own rules over limited aspects of a game. To the best of my knowledge A Tale in the Desert does something like this as does Second life but games like this have never proven as popular as the big theme parks.
EVE has most of its objects interactable and supports (even encourages) unstructured play. Actually it lacks any kind of structured challenges you must pass. You can live your life without doing a single "quest" and many people do so.
The toy analogy is a very good one although the example you give of collecting pets seems to me to be more like pursuing a hobby than playing with a toy. I've always used a different analogy to describe what I think MMOs are and are best at being: I see them as recreation grounds or parks.

Not "theme parks", which are very specific, semi-directed commercial entertainments, but much more in the line of the great Victorian concept of the Public Park. MMOs offer a shared space that can be used by anyone for anything, provided the activity is legal and decent. The authorities provide the fixed structures - lawns, paths, fountains, lakes along with some necessary amenities. They also install a number of "toys" - playgrounds, petting zoos, bandstands, boats - that provide suggested activities that are still to be used in a very informal manner.

People who visit the park are free to just wander and enjoy it for what it is, to socialize with other visitors, to use the amenities and play with the toys BUT they are also able to use the space to play organized games with set rules - croquet, tennis, chess, tag. The games-players, the toy-players, the wanderers and the socializers each need to respect each others' boundaries and recognize that, within limits, their activities may mildly impinge. No-one can own all the space.

It seems to me that if park keepers have been able to run actual parks to the satisfaction of millions upon millions of people for hundreds of years despite many of those people having almost diametrically opposed needs and desires on how to use the space then developers ought to be able to manage it on a computer screen.

For the most part they did, for the first few years, but latterly the visitors playing the organized games have begun to dominate the space and the virtual park keepers have been helping them to do it. It's a shame. The end result will be that only the gameplayers will remain and the parks will become nothing more than games pitches and stadiums.
A "sandbox" as an unconstrained environment only serves to act as a backdrop to structured play in the form of a "game."

That pile of legos is a "toy" in the generic. Once you apply a set of structured constraints to it, it becomes a "game." There are hundreds of games in that pile of legos, the one you're playing now is only manifested when you decide and apply the constraints that are the current "game", for example: "Make a spaceship." Legos, however, are not totally free form, they stack in one direction only (generally). You cannot just put them together any way you want unless you're willing to use Krazy glue.

I think a problem with MMORPGS is that there are many games contained in the environment, and the games are unnecessarily cross linked by global rules.

Replacing these global rules with local ones that are specific to the "game" you're currently playing would start to resolve that. For example. You cannot fly in Draenor because it would trivialize some quests and exploration. "Cannot Fly" is a global rule, whereas those "Quests and exploration" are "games" manifested by your local choices and actions. If I'm not playing those games, I should not be subjected to their rules.

If a quest requires you to climb up a mountain the hard way, then turn off flying for the player while they have that quest.
I think you're migrating into a different genre/type of games....of which a great many are currently out there. What you want is a game with the population of an MMO but the robust diversity of a sandbox. A prettier Minecraft, maybe? There's a market for this, I suspect, for the first dev that can really pull it off. I've been dabbling in a lot of sandbox titles on Steam recently, and while most of them are a hot mess, they all appear to be driven by a desire to escape as much predefined game/social structure as possible.
A shameless plug, but we discussed this topic at length on a recent podcast:
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