Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Winging It

I’m the kind of guy that likes to plan and analyze his games. I absolutely didn’t mind using spreadsheets to optimize my performance in World of Warcraft – I even have a spreadsheet tracking all my games of Momir Magic, helping me identify trends in the randomness of that game. As much as I enjoy working like that though, it isn’t always the right thing to do.

This weekend I got to play a round of Dominion – an absolutely awesome card game in which you build your deck while playing. I had never played the game before and therefore had to make everything up as I went along. It was a lot of fun that way. If I had know the game beforehand well enough I’m sure I would have worked out strategies and the whole game would simply have been the execution of a previously devised plan. Read: boring.

One could start to wonder what the difference is between Dominion, World of Warcraft, and Momir Magic. Why do I enjoy all the planning ahead in Momir but would quite dislike it in Dominion? And what about World of Warcraft in which the whole spreadsheet-ing did make the game itself boring but I still kept playing?

I feel that it really comes to down to two factors: randomness and goal-orientation. In World of Warcraft I had the clear goal of completing hard encounters in my mind and was willing to perform boring and tedious tasks to that end. I believe that this is what drives many raiders in MMOs, what keeps them going, and also what makes them quit if there is a slump in content or an insurmountably hard encounter. Players who are not as ambitious will often discard their ability to plan ahead which leads to a lesser performance in game terms, but also to more fun making things up as they go along.

Events generally feel random to people until they understand the governing principles and perceived randomness is essential for players to be able to just wing it. The less potential for spontaneous decisions there is, the more important a clear goal becomes to keep the player interested in playing. The more clear this goal becomes on the other hand, the more likely the player will be to try and understand the governing principles of the game – reducing perceived randomness and thereby increasing the need for clear-cut goals. What we have here is a bit of a vicious circle which, if possible, will lead to a complete understanding of game mechanics and therefore a trivialization of gameplay itself – which is exactly what we are seeing with high-end raiders in World of Warcraft.

A game like Momir Basic is different in so far as it is virtually impossible to plan out every situation. There are so many cards that can be generated at random, that each game will look different. My spreadsheet allows me to figure out which overall strategies work better in the long run by keeping track of my wins and losses using them. While the overall gameplan does become clear after a certain amount of analyzed games, each one still is suitably different enough that games never get boring or repetitive. There is a clear goal-orientation in this game as well due to the fact that only a good winning percentage will allow you to keep playing without losing money. The vicious circle observed above cannot be closed though since there is a large chunk of the game that is simply impossible to plan ahead for.

With Dominion on the other hand there is no reward to winning and therefore little incentive to try and figure out the game. I’m sure that there are some absolutely dominating strategies hidden in those cards that would greatly reduce the fun of everyone involved. Luckily for us players though, few people will ever have the incentive of trying to figure those out in between games (or look them up on the internet).

When developing a game with a clear, important, and difficult-to-reach goals (read: an MMO) one has to be very careful not to allow players to figure the game out. This can be done with true randomness, high complexity, a swiftly changing set of rules, or a combination of those. If a game developer fails in that regard, eventual boredom for Bartle-type achievers seems inevitable.