23 February, 2006
Since I'm neither an executive at a large corporation with nothing better to do than post in my blog, nor have I just left my job and have nothing better to do than post in my blog, (just kidding, guys ;) so I'm a bit late to the party. What party? The party bashing on David Sirlin's recent article on Gamasutra.
What was his sin? He passed harsh judgment on WoW (and, by extension, all online RPGs) and claimed it was teaching people bad lessons. Unfortunately, he misses the point in almost all his criticism.
So, here's my bash against him.
Well, not really. I'm actually going to try not to be to much of an asshole (stop laughing), because David Sirlin's a pretty smart guy. He's got a website full of really great design discussions. I highly recommend checking his stuff out; he's really bright when it comes to his areas of expertise.
But, unfortunately, it appears he's a bit out of his depth when talking about online RPG design. He also shows a rather shocking side of things, considering WoW is intended to be "casual friendly". Of course, if you dig down a bit into his complaints, you start to see some of the real issues that online developers struggle with on a regular basis.
With that, let me give two caveats. First, this isn't to say that some of WoW's systems aren't horribly, horribly broken. WoW's PvP "honor" system David Sirlin references in his article does have so many flaws in it that it makes an easy target. I could also generalize this and agree that nearly every game has some system in the game that basically sucks. My second caveat is that each player is different. Although I said I was going to bash on his article, I think his responses are entirely valid as his opinion. The real problem here is that Mr. Sirlin looks at his own feelings and believes this is true for everyone else. I'm a bit surprised he falls into this trap, given his very intelligent articles on design. But, once you consider that he was a world-class Street Fighter 2 champion, some of his complaints start to be understandable; perhaps online RPGs aren't for him, despite playing for over 2 years....
Now, I can't really fault his premise here. Raph's book establishes that games are about learning. Some may argue that games can be just about entertainment, but that's an argument for another post. For now, let's accept that games can teach and people can learn from games. The problem here is that I don't think the lessons learned are the wrong ones, or that the game is responsible for teaching people these "wrong lessons".
Let's start with the first issue, spread between two different numbers: Time > skill is... fundamentally bad. Mr. Sirlin argues that this situation is unfair, and that a Street Fighter player doesn't expect to level Chun Li up to 60th level before she can compete. Yet, he seems to ignore that there are many games where you are expected to level up a character (although very few of them are available at the arcade). What kind of game would Dragon Warrior have been if you could have waltzed right up to the end boss, pulled off an amazing combo, and won the game right then? Perhaps Mr. Sirlin would have enjoyed it, but I'm pretty sure I would not have. Part of the fun was going around collecting the items, learning about the world, and leveling up. Yes, even gaining levels was fun because you could wander along the "border" where harder monsters were, trying your luck against the harder enemies (in other words, taking on more risk to enhance the fun. Online RPGs are an extension of these single-player RPGs, so you have the experience earning and all the same things. (And, you could argue that these mechanics aren't proper for an online game, but that's yet another post for another time.)
Now, David Sirlin did clarify his point in a comment on Raph's Blog, saying that what irked him was the sense of entitlement: that people who spent more time in the game deserve better rewards. Unfortunately, this attitude isn't unique or even necessarily reinforced by the game itself. Lots of people feel entitled to things. People with college degrees feel entitled to a well-paying job. People who pay taxes feel entitled to government services. People who have paid the cashier feel entitled to food at McDonald's. In some cases, these feelings of entitlement are understandable; other times, they are silly. (And, I have to agree that a sense of entitlement is one of the the things that irks me as a game administrator, as well.)
But, I'd also argue that it is the players are the ones leading this charge that time is more important that skill, not the developers. Most guilds have a system called DKP to reward people that spend more time in the game and go on raids more frequently. The game does not require this of players, they have set up this system themselves. I would take this to mean that players think this is the fairest way to reward people, based on time spent.
He also claims that this lesson isn't applicable to the offline world. Mr. Sirlin might want to look up the word "seniority" to learn that there are applications for this outside of WoW. And, sometimes for very good reasons.
His next point is that Group > Solo. Claiming to be an introvert, he says he doesn't like being forced to interact with other people. As a fellow introvert, I have to disagree that this feeling is universal. One of the reasons why introverts dislike interacting with people is because it tires them out. Personally, I find that interacting with people online is much less taxing, and I actually quite enjoy socializing online even though I can only do it in limited doses offline. I consistently rank high on the Socializer aspect in those tests. (I still recommend the wonderful book, The Introvert Advantage if you want to understand more about introverts and extroverts.) So, again I think he is taking his own experiences and trying to make them universal when this isn't the case.
He further argues that this lesson doesn't apply to the offline world, again, saying that Einstein did his best work alone. However, there are some easy counters to this. A group of 40 construction workers will almost certainly complete a project sooner than a single construction worker will. Obviously, something like patching a hole in a wall doesn't require 40 people, but we need buildings constructed in addition to holes patched.
Of course, to be fair, there are many other people that argue about this. "Forced" grouping was a continuous source of ire for Jeff Freeman . Some people don't enjoy grouping, and perhaps someone will make a game for them. Well, a game even more solo-friendly than WoW....
Next, he complains about guilds, but this is really related to his group and solo argument in the previous point. I'm going to have to share Scott Jenning's reaction in his blog entry: a bit of puzzlement. We talk about online games and how the strengths are the community. Here you have someone that doesn't want to join a guild, theoretically a group of people that share his interests. I guess if your interests are avoiding other people, it's hard to form an association. ;) It's also puzzling when you consider the group vs. solo complaint, given that WoW is one of the most solo-friendly games until you get to the highest levels. I doubt he would have gotten past level 2 in old-school EQ1! But, what does this say when most of our hard-core players think WoW is a bit too solo-friendly, yet someone else thinks it's not solo-friendly enough! Can we really cater to all the audiences here?
But, finally, we get to the point that I will have to savage Mr. Sirlin over: the Terms of Service (ToS). He brings up the old argument: it's always the developer's fault if players exploit bugs, and players should not be regulated or punished for exploiting bugs or weaknesses in the game. The problem is that he is treating this as a game, not a service. Since you have many, many people playing you have to treat these issues differently. When one person does can affect the experience your other customers have, so you have to have some rules to protect your other customers. Someone who ruins the game for other people by exploiting a bug needs to be treated as a detriment to your other customers. Establishing ground rules for what is acceptable and what is not is a basic element of defining the service and managing players' expectations.
Mr. Sirlin also simplifies the matter too much. One of my basic rules in online game design is that code cannot determine intent. There's a difference between a clever strategy and a repeated exploit, and it often comes down to intent. Perhaps I'm running from a monster and I duck around a large rock, and the monster is unable to get around that rock to kill me. This is a clever strategy that I used to avoid the monster. But, if I set things up so that I can hide behind the rock and still damage the monster with no risk to myself, this is an exploit. If developers were to remove that potential exploit, they would have to remove the clever strategy as well and the game is diminished. So, instead, developers will forbid behavior they feel is exploitative while still allowing clever strategies to be used.
I think that he did not consider this position very carefully. Let me provide an example that Mr. Sirlin might find more familiar. Let's say there's a Street Fighter II tournament. Let's say I find a debug code that a programmer left in that allows me to press a button sequence to automatically kill my opponent, and I can do it fast enough to win every fight. Would this still be a fair tournament? Or, would most of the participants feel cheated? What would happen when people learned the code themselves and started using it? Tournaments would degenerate into people inputting that code as fast as possible, getting it done a split second before their opponent. Is this really so far removed from actually playing the game that rewards split-second timing? I believe that David Sirlin would find this to be detrimental to the game, and I think the wonderful culture that formed around Street Fighter tournament competitions would have died as soon as this would have happened. I don't think it would have been wrong to install a rule that people in a tournament could not use this trick in order to maintain the spirit of competition in the game.
Of course, once again I have to admit there is a kernel of truth in this part of his rant. Sometimes game developers over use the rules because players aren't playing the game the way they envision. I talked about this in a previous post, "What is an exploit?" You definitely want to get rid of exploits, but sometimes player creativity should be rewarded. If you want to discourage that type of behavior, well, that's what patches are for.
In the end, I think that the article does mostly miss the point. Yet, I think if we really examine things and dig down, we can recognize some issues lurking beneath the surface. What can we do as designers to address the real issues? That's a question most of us online developer struggle with on an ongoing basis.