31 May, 2009
There’s an old joke about how a person sees the same action in different perspectives. For example:
- I borrow items without asking permission.
- You take things that don’t belong to you.
- He (or she) steals things from others.
The joke here is that I don’t do anything bad, you (the person I have to worry about the old “punch in the face” from) are a bit worse than I am, and the person we’re gossiping about is a horrible human being.
But, I think that this is an interesting way to think about game design.
- Many players say they want one thing.
- Most players do something different.
- Reality dictates what actually can be done.
Let’s see how this relates to quests and “innovation”, shall we?
The insightful Sanya Weathers wrote an article in a series about the “MMO Underbelly” about quest realities. She points out that while you might read a lot of people asking for deep stories and meaningful quests, the reality is much different:
“It used to be assumed that people playing an MMORPG wanted story – as they did in their single player RPGs – but then the industry introduced metrics. The fact is, people skip walls of text.”
As she points out, this is based on measured responses from players. Most of them will skip the text, so why put it in there?
“My hopes for a future MMO worth actually playing died a little more with every paragraph. I know it is the reality of the situation, but I usually get through my day without facing it.
Facing the reality that MMOs are being steered towards the ADD-rattled and lemming like masses makes me want to start building the bunker out back and writing a manifesto…”
Sanya isn’t alone here. One of the designers of the infallible WoW said a lot of the same things; quests are too wordy to the point of being books, any sort of mystery is bad, etc. It’s likely that Mr. Kaplan is pulling from a lot of metrics the WoW team has collected about player behavior. Even though designers want more characters in quest text to tell what they feel are better stories, players are blowing past the text and ignoring it anyway.
And, all this runs up against our old friend, the “content creation problem.” Writing quest text isn’t free, and it takes a lot of time to write text and put it into the game. The time a developer takes (or the money used to pay him) could be put to use in another area that might be more vital for the game. Sacrificing class balance for better quest text doesn’t necessarily seem like a good tradeoff if the players aren’t going to read the quest text. (You can be sure they’ll bitch about class imbalances, though!)
So, here we have our first example laid out for us:
- Many players say they want an engaging story.
- Most players skip the boring text anyway.
- Reality dictates that quest text will be limited.
But, any choice you pick here will be sub-optimal. Put in crappy quest text and players who want interesting stories will complain. Remove quests and players will complain about having to grind monsters for xp. Put in quality quest text and you’ll be sacrificing some other aspect of the game. No matter what you do, someone will complain. So, what do you do? Depends on where your priorities are, of course, and which group’s complaints will do the less harm.
But, there are (at least) two sins being committed here. The first is many developers not understanding that what players say and what they do are two different things, as I point out. The forum warriors aren’t necessarily going to be representative of the people actually playing the game. Metrics are really interesting because they show the specific behavior of players. The danger here, however, is misinterpreting the metrics. Why are people skipping the quest text? It may be because they don’t care, but one common complaint about quest text in the comments to Sanya’s article above was that people felt that they had to skip quest text to keep up with their friends.
The second is treating players like a monolithic group that has all the same desires. The people saying they want story aren’t the same people skipping the quest text; or, if they are the same people, then they have some specific issues that need to be addressed. I find myself skipping quest text in LotRO even with a patient GF who does want to read quest text; I’ve been trained to skip all that blah-blah-blah and get to the rewards in WoW. On the bright side, LotRO keeps tracks of the quests you have done and lets you re-read the quest text at a later time, so it mitigates some of that.
Turning our eye away from the developers for a moment, we can see one more sin here: the sin of complacent players. Players may say they want something, but they need to show they want it as well, and not just through in-game actions. Tesh embedded a rant in a recent post:
“[Game companies] react to money, and only money. If you want something better than what is offered, stop paying for mediocre work. Stop riding the early adopter hype bandwagon, and wait[ing] for companies to offer something you feel is worth your money.”
His core argument here is sound: if you pay for something, this encourages other companies to create more of the same. Developers don’t clone WoW because they can’t think of any other types of games, but because this is what people know will sell. It’s easier to make a business case for cloning WoW because you can show that it works. It’s harder to make a business case for something unproven because you have to find data, and deviations from the known art make the data less meaningful. This is why indie game development is so important, because it’s vital to get the ability to test out different concepts with lower risk.
So, I’ll put the caveat on Tesh’s rant above and say: don’t fear to support someone who is developing something you really want to play, even if it seems “mediocre” in some way. The ideal game may not have AAA level graphics, or a slick marketing budget, or any of the other things you may expect from large companies. But, a successful smaller game means that it will be easier to pitch a similar game later.
So, what do you think? Are players really saying one thing and doing or meaning another? Or, is there some reasonable explanation? Or, are we just doomed to play mostly EQ/WoW clones for eternity?