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.