Breaking Combat Addiction – at least certain kinds of it

Flatfingers had a response to Brian Green’s question “Do you enjoy your favorite MMORPG more or less because of the changes that have been applied to it?”
He answered:

“Unhappily, my MMORPG experiences since EQ have led me to precisely the opposite conclusion: as a gamer, I’m just not interested in playing any of these games any more because my perception is that they have ceased to change in any meaningful way.”

I originally had a draft post that used the discussion on live team drift to lead into Flatfingers post because it fits with the question I raised last week about murder and theft as core gameplay; whether it is possible to get away from it. Flatfingers is correct when he laments the “lack of innovation” in the MMO industry. The typical MMO is “kill and loot” + agro + trinity. Even nontraditional, child oriented MMOs, such as Wizard 101, follow the same formulas. This is not just with the online RPGs. Change the ruleset and tweak the story (but keep the cliches) and Dragon Age is another Baldur’s Gate. Pen and paper RPGs have been in the “commit mass murder and steal from the dead” business ever since at least 1978. Aggro came from text MUDs and was initially a workaround for the problem of determining who a mob attacks in a node based environment that lacks a coordinate system.

But what could come in its place? Some worlds do break from the “standard model” in spectacular ways:

  • RPI MUDS
  • A Tale in the Desert’s crafting emphasis – not a dead mob in sight
  • Darkfall’s manual swings
  • EVE Online’s time (as in calandar time) based character advancement and economy emphasis

It is probably not surprising that the first two of these examples are socializer and roleplayer oriented, while the latter two are PvP oriented. But what about for achiever and explorer oriented play? As Damian Schubert has often pointed out, the usual gameplay conventions are not in place because of lack of innovative thought, but because most of the alternatives simply can’t hold onto a player for an extended period of time. As evizaer pointed out, breaking combat addiction is hard to do, very hard.

One problem with player pontification is complaining that there is no innovation without trying to come up with alternatives. We can’t just expect professionals to “innovate”. They are usually spending other people’s money and have to take a route that is known to “be fun”. We have to come up with alternatives and ideally implement them; or at least prototype them. My conjecturing from yesterday is worthless without a prototype example.

So I repeat my question from last week. Is it possible to design a world that is compelling to explorers and achievers without resorting to the usual crutches?

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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5 Responses to Breaking Combat Addiction – at least certain kinds of it

  1. PT says:

    To be fair, a lot of us keep returning to Bioware games *because* they are so fundamentally unchanged. The cliché gameplay devices (hybrid linear hotspot/non-linear exploration) and plot devices (isolation from prior life, initiation into secret societies), are what they are, because as Terry Pratchett points out : “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” They just form the skeleton around which you build the unique parts of the story.

    Part of the reason combat is so central to game design is that even when it is done poorly (and there are many examples of that) violence is the final arbiter; it is simple, straightforward, and complete.

    I had previously replied that in RP settings, you can get away with endless violence because it is almost always completely divorced from any real consequences (social unrest, personal vendettas, family trauma, PTSD on the part of the hero). (Side note: I think it would make a bad game, but a fun case study to have a game protagonist suffer PTSD from their hyperviolence)

    I digress, but the reason it is so popular is that it is entirely, instinctively understood by everyone playing the game. Even when it is sublimated and abstracted to “shooting” a yellow pixel across a screen to hit a cluster of grey and black pixels that are supposed to be an asteroid; we get it immediately, with no need for explanation.

    When you start delving into gameplay mechanics based on social interaction, cooperation, helping others, and so forth, the immediate objective and the nature of the reward are instantly murkier. It becomes more self-directed, and reflects more about what the player wants than what the gameplay lays out. Any game premised on cooperation can be intentionally and maliciously “lost” by the player, but there is some immediate gratification derived from the primitive desire for control of one’s surroundings. You can’t control how you win a cooperative game, but you can control how you lose one.

  2. Bart Stewart says:

    As the “Flatfingers” mentioned in the initial post, I hope I may be permitted a comment or two on this subject. 😉

    Firstly, the line of thought I’ve been pursuing on gameplay styles suggests that the looting aspect of games is a direct nod to the Achiever playstyle. Loot is (I think) best understood as one type of collectible asset. It satisfies the need to establish security through the accumulation of assets in what is perceived as a zero-sum world that to me is the defining hallmark of the Achiever. So games that offer loot, badges, titles, group memberships (especially hierarchical), Achievements, leaderboards and other manifestations of competitive status are, I would argue, right in line with Achiever playstyle desires. On that basis, I’m not sure I’d say that Achievers are missing out on game content these days.

    Secondly, if we’re going to try to figure out what Explorers want so that someone can give it to them, then it would help to be clear about what we mean by “exploration” in a gameplay context. And here, a notion I’ve been pushing for a while (see the Terra Nova discusson “Will The Real Explorer Please Stand Up?” at http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2005/01/will_the_real_e/comments/page/1/ ) is that it’s important to understand that exploration does not just mean the surface-level mapping of some physical terrain — I believe that exploration is rightly understood as the process of discovering the unknown constituents of complex systems. It’s true that wandering around some physical terrain and mapping its landmarks counts as exploration. But to see exploration as only that is to unnecessarily limit the kinds of gameplay that could be satisfying to Explorers.

    As I’ve come to think of it, Exploration in its larger sense is about figuring out how things work, not necessarily for any tangible benefit (which is an Achiever impulse) but solely because it’s gratifying to comprehend the internal nature of a thing or process. This gives us lots more things that can be done in a game setting that can be fun for Explorers, starting with various forms of puzzle-solving (i.e., the discovery of the rules of a system). As a concrete example of this, crafting, when implemented as figuring out and creatively using construction rules, rather than as mere mass-production manufacturing for economic competition, is inherently an Explorer activity. A game designed to have a deep crafting feature through which new production rules can be discovered by perceptive thought (but with the manufacturing/economic element minimized) would, I think, appeal strongly to Explorers. Another possibility could be the exploration of the emotional rules of personal relationships, although this kind of deep engagement with “story” and “characters” could also be appealing to Socializer roleplayers.

    Finally, even combat itself could be designed to have more Exploration-oriented aspects. Two recent games that attempt this are Dragon Age: Origins and BioShock 2, both of which encourage the player to experiment with combinations of spells/plasmids to create new effects. Generally speaking, a combat system in which weapons are complex individually (and thus need to be understood), or that have combinatory effects with each other that can be mapped, or that have distinctive interactions with particular environments (requiring the creative development of new tactics) could be interesting and fun for Explorers. (Crafting new kinds of weapons could be fun, too — Fallout 3 offered a very, very limited version of this, but it was better than nothing.)

    I could rattle on some more about this, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. The main point I’d like to make is that, IMO, Explorers care about understanding systems, and there’s no reason not to include content of that time in large games intended to appeal to a mass market. As noted, I’ve about lost all hope that this will happen; it’s pretty much all about simpleminded destruction these days… but I’m still writing and posting on this subject, so I suppose the flicker of hope for a richer play experience than shooting people in the face and taking their stuff hasn’t guttered out entirely yet.

  3. morrighu says:

    As long as the game industry is tied into investing millions upon millions to release a single title, you will NEVER see innovation. No one is going to take the risk because they can’t afford a single failure. They have too much invested and one failure literally means the end of the company.

    Engine licensing fees alone can easily be 10 or 20 million just to get the development started. That doesn’t count the time for the artists or the programmers or the rendering farm or anything else. That’s just to get to a point you can start writing code. That’s quite an investment.

  4. Dave says:

    There may be something to the explorer oriented way. I recall from Bartle’s player types feedback loops that a large number of explorers can keep down the killer (griefer) population and RP’ers tend to be drawn from socializers (as dramists) and explorers (as simulationists). It would likely suppress the achiever population, but too many achievers (and too many killers) is usually a big reason why “RP Servers” on large MMOs usually have precious little RP. This is also in line with what I laid out in the “train to fight” article.

    So perhaps an explorer orientation is the way then?

  5. James "tbox" says:

    I totally agree that explorers are driven by figuring stuff out. I think one of problems explorers face is that explorations get posted on a community site and limit the amount of content that is explorable. For example one explorer may provide a walk through into how to kill a boss mob or create a database of crafting combinations.

    I think an interesting idea could be something like creating a part of the game that is semi temporary and through procedure new content is generated while old content is removed.

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