Friday, May 19, 2006
Stop Playing Memory
Yesterday's post on the repetitiveness of video games made me think a bit more on the subject. I think there are two major game components in video games, but they aren't really easy to keep apart. Let's do a thought experiment, by designing 2 very simple games:
Game 1 I call the reaction game. You and me sit face to face, and we both have a red card in the right hand, and a green card in the left hand. Now I raise one of my hands at random, and your job is to raise your hand holding the same color. We do that 20 times and your "score" is based on your average reaction time, the faster you react, the higher the score. If ever you raise the wrong hand with the wrong color, you're out, and have to restart.
Game 2 works exactly like game 1. Only that instead of raising my hands at random, I always use exactly the same sequence of red and green. I call this the memory game.
It is obvious that your score in the memory game will be equal or better than that of the reaction game. Because if you weren't using your memory at all, you could still simply react to what you see me doing, and the game becomes a reaction game. But the more often you play game 2, the more your score is going to improve over the reaction game score, because you *know*, from your memory, which color card I am going to raise next. Of course playing memory is more repetitive than playing the reaction game, and while your score is higher, the game is less interesting.
Video games often have both elements. The first time you encounter a situation in a game, you will need to react to it. But if you fail and die / wipe, you can reload / rez and do exactly the same situation again. Thus you know what is going to happen, and your memory helps you to overcome the encounter and win. That is true for many games, from first-person-shooter console games to World of Warcraft.
Take for example the Onyxia encounter in World of Warcraft. There are guides for this encounter out there, telling you exactly about the three phases of the combat, what Onyxia will be doing, and how to avoid getting killed in each of this phases. An Onyxia raid is successful if all the participants know this information, and play in accordance with a prearranged plan, based on *knowing* what will happen.
Now imagine what would happen if Onyxia wouldn't react always the same way, but would have some sort of artificial intelligence. You stand there with your fire resistance gear, having quaffed a greater fire protection potion, and Onyxia breathes acid on you, dealing nature damage. Or instead of using deep breath in the second phase, Onyxia sees that everybody is widely scattered, and that the most annoying characters are those cloth wearing, dot casting types, and does a short dive attack, ripping that cloth wearer into pieces.
Why are people so proud to be the first guild to have killed a new raid boss? Because as they were the first, they didn't have the knowledge on the first try, painstakingly acquired the knowledge over several wipes, and then played and won the memory game. The guilds coming after that can worked with borrowed memories, making the encounter a lot easier.
Now the memory game has one distinctive disadvantage. Everybody, including the game developers, knows that the memory makes the encounter a lot easier. So the difficulty level of the encounter is planned in a way that for a person or group *with perfect knowledge of what will happen* the encounter is still challenging. Which usually means that if the player or group does not have the knowledge, but relies solely on reacting to observations during the encounter, the encounter is impossibly hard.
What I would like to see, and what I think could be the future of video games, is better artificial intelligence, and encounters that are different every time you play them. These encounters would be easier, because memory wouldn't help you much with them. Instead of relying on people knowing what will happen, which is by necessity repetitive and becomes boring fast, in each encounter players would need to react correctly to what they see. Ideally the monster would likewise react on what it sees the player(s) doing, so doing always the same strategy would actually make the encounter harder, not easier.
Think of it: Every single guild killing Onyxia would be the first guild to beat that particular encounter, because every Onyxia encounter would be different. Instead of players learning how to beat Onyxia, Onyxia would have a neural network type of artifical intelligence, learning how to beat players that always do the same. The encounter would remain challenging and interesting forever, because it never repeats.