1 July, 2011
A few blog posts caught my attention recently that summed something I new on an intuitive basis: that there’s a conflict between fun and efficiency. It’s something that seems obvious after you think about it, but perhaps not immediately obvious to players or designers. So, let’s take a look at this a bit more and see how these two elements interact.
It’s not that fun
Nils recently wrote a post where he pointed out an older post he made called “The Fun Fallicy”. The argument made is that the old saw “if someone skips something in a game, it’s not fun” is not really true. In general, this argument usually gets reduced to extremes: repetitive activity degrades into a “grind” vs. the “I Win” button that everyone claims they wouldn’t press but actually would and therefore get bored. (I would, once, to see what happened. Then I’d probably get bored.) Nils points out that “circumstances matter” in what we find fun. He points out that once you remove an element that people might willingly want to skip, it becomes the default to skip that. The example used is the LFD tool in WoW: people skip all the tedium of finding other players and actually traveling to a dungeon entrance, but that doesn’t mean these activities don’t have some element of fun in them: socialization, exploration, etc.
The first few comments also point out the fallacy of “nothing stopping you” from doing something that as been previously removed. One could still travel to a dungeon, but a group would likely kick you out if you tried to do exactly that.
The path more traveled
Syl over at Raging Monkeys wrote a post recently about Placeholders for real things – shortcuts to nowhere, dealing with a similar issue. The post argues that shortcuts seem like more fun, but ultimately take away part of the entertainment. There are a few scenarios presented in the post, showing that the more arduous and/or less efficient activity can provide a lot more adventure.
I pointed out that shortcuts aren’t all bad in a comment: “The trick is that a shortcut is fun if the player finds it. Being pointed at the shortcut with a group of people already running down that path and the ‘road less traveled by’ stays that way.”
The question of efficiency
Really, what it comes down to is efficiency. The focus of the Achiever motivation is to achieve; it’s kinda in the name. But, that comes with an interesting contradiction: achievers prefer to advance as fast as possible, but if they do reach “the end” then they’ll grow bored. So, a good game balances between allowing the Achiever to gain power on a regular basis without them getting all possible power. The focus by the Achievers to be efficient requires developers to introduce some counter to that efficiency. The least popular are roadblocks keeping people from advancing, while the more popular and more expensive option is to keep adding more stuff (“content”) to achieve.
The point is that achievers love efficiency, even if it ultimately leads to an end that isn’t very much fun. Of course, you could say the same thing about Explorers: once you figure out how everything works, you’re likely to be bored and want to move on. But, this is a key: because it means that efficiency and fun are at odds for a typical MMO player. (Although Explorers are probably better able to find ways to keep themselves entertained than Achievers in current MMOs.)
The result is that, in general, if there’s an option between having fun and being efficient then many people will choose the more efficient option. And then complain that the fun was taken out of the game. Further, people once efficiency is introduced, players are loathe to not use that efficiency. It feels more wrong to do something inefficient, even if it’s demonstrably less fun to be efficient. A common example is mounts: once one of your characters gets a mount, you have a hard time walking around without it. It can be especially painful to go walking around on an alt character after you’re used to the speed of being on a mount. This applies to a lot of other efficiencies, like teleporting around, run speed buffs, etc.
This becomes more complex as you also have other people in the MMO. As the comments on Nils’ post indicated, people who use the most efficient path expect others to do the same. Not using the most efficient path (or worse, purposely choosing to avoid the most efficient path) can be frustrating to others who are relying and/or waiting on you. This explains another issue: people not reading quest text. Even if the game has witty and interesting quest text, if you’re reading all the text and slowing everyone else down, you’re more likely to skip the text just to keep up. This is especially true if the others have previously read the text, such as them racing through the content to help your character. You can’t just do the inefficient thing with others waiting as you create problems with your social interactions then.
It’s already been theorized
This also fits within Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun. Efficiency is a pattern to recognize and master, and if people get to good at it, then they no longer find it fun. Looking at it from this perspective, what developers do when they put in shortcuts is give a quick jolt of “fun” to players as they suddenly feel like they’ve mastered part of the pattern, but it creates harm in the long term when the players become too efficient and loathe to give up their efficiencies to try to recapture elements of fun. They’ve matched the pattern the designers set up and don’t want to go back!
Playing the developers
One other interesting thing to consider is what players are willing to do to achieve efficiency. I noticed while running Meridian 59 that some people tried to use the administrators as weapons against their enemies: by reporting cheating (sometimes spuriously), trying to befriend the admins to get rewards, or even trying to manipulate things (like the timing of admin-run events) to get an advantage. Every time I did something in the game, I usually took extra steps to try to figure out how it could affect the balance of power. Of course, people still accused me of making changes to favor their enemies, probably in a attempt to get me to change things to favor them instead.
It seems that some players see gaming the administrators as a legitimate way to get efficiency in PvE games as well. Agitating for a change, particularly a buff to one’s own class, seems to be a legitimate way to gain more efficiency. The continual cries for buffs and improvements could be seen as the players recognizing that the best way to solve the pattern is to get the people who implemented the pattern to change it. A designer needs to figure out if calls for a way to instantly form a party to play a dungeon are motivated by a desire to play dungeons more, or from a desire to run dungeons easier because that’s the most efficient way to advance and instantly forming a group makes things that much more efficient.
What’s the best design?
So, what does this mean to an MMO designer? Ultimately, I think the best game is one that has a good rate of progression that isn’t too fast. Then, intentionally design in “shortcuts” for players to find. Nothing too obvious, but something where the player feels clever for finding it or figuring out a trick. Keep an eye on parts that players find frustrating and make the shortcuts in those areas a bit more obvious. Be careful introducing shortcuts that remove too much of the game, however, like WoW’s LFD tool; once you add something that significant, it become difficult if not impossible to remove it and go back to the way things were. Keep in mind that changes to the game might have other effects, such as changing social dynamics and
Once people master the pattern, you can’t take away their trick and expect them to go back to the old way of dealing with the pattern.
What do you think? Do you find yourself favoring efficiency over fun? Do you feel pressured by others to do so?