Friday, July 24, 2009

"Elegance"

I missed a couple days of posting due to being very busy with real world things. To top it off, I've been taking Benadryl to treat a vaccination not knowing that it induces sleep. Finally I became suspicious and found out that it is the reason I've had the overwhelming desire to go to sleep at 6 pm the last couple of days.

I'd as might as well come out honestly: I'm in a bit of an off mood. Why am I in an off mood? Well, it certainly isn't lack of sleep. The book "Art of Game Design" has suddenly lost a great deal of its luster for me, and I am beginning to find more and more of its claims and tools to often be useless and sometimes downright misleading. Of course, even recognizing these things takes a great deal of thought, and such thought does stimulate new ideas, so I cannot completely hate what the author is saying. What I do hate, however, is the author's relentless apologetic tone, and his incessant insistence on trying to cover his butt with claims such as "Of course, there are many other things not listed here..." and "There are many other ways of looking at..." and my favorite "Many people will disagree with..." These statements are not manly. [*Gasp* he must be a sexist!] Call me what you want, but I look for an author to take ground and stand on it firmly and with conviction, not prance around with lawyer-esque caveats. I'm finding this aspect of the book more and more difficult to get over.

Furthermore, many of the book's lenses strike me as completely useless. Now, in order to write a book, one is expected to fill a certain number of pages - this I understand. However, the author on the one hand caveats many of the true things he says with politically correct counter-statements (the differences between males and females is one of the grossest examples), and will on the other hand take a statement riddled with unproven implications as if it were an obvious assumption. I'm not going to quote specific examples because I'm simply not in the mood. If you think I'm incapable of backing claims with quotes from the book then this must be the first thing I've written that you've read.

Instead of discussing the book, I'd like to veer off into some of my own opinions of MMORPG game worlds. By actually taking a stance on specific issues, I am knowingly making myself vulnerable to attack. What good is writing that takes no stance or has no vulnerability? I'm ready to defend anything I've said here, and am equally willing to admit defeat and change my attitude or opinions. That goes for this entire blog now and to come.

Mr. Schell does mention one thing I'm going to use as a jumping-off point: Often times players don't know what they want. This fact rings truer in MMORPGs than in any other genre. Players have no idea what they want to do, they only know how they want to feel. Getting from point A to point B requires a deep knowledge of the way human beings experience life, of which I will touch upon a very small aspect here.

The vast majority of people simplify all of life's problems into convenient tests in order to decide what to do next. A racist will reduce complex disagreements between individuals into the simple formula: which one is closer to my race; I will agree with them. A gender bigot will ask who's gender is their own. A political activist will ask which side wears their colors. A religious zealot will ask which side is kafir. An environmental elitist will ask which side is called "green" by other elites. The sad majority of human beings reduce all complex questions down to considerations that have virtually nothing to do with the questions actually at hand. More often than not, this reduction leads to answers that are based largely, and often entirely, on the social structure in which they reside. Racists reside with others of their race, genderists commune with members of their gender, political ideologues surround themselves with other ideologues, religious zealots congregate with other zealots, environmental elites groupthink with other elites, and on and on it goes.

Why do I bring this up? Well, for one thing, most people have no understanding of just how widespread this phenomenon is. It permeates every corner of every society in the world. If you think game designers are any different, then you are lying to yourself.

One thing that has continually angered me as I've written/read about MMOs on various forums is the confusion over "elegance." I recall once I was on the IRC chat for the upcoming game Mortal Online, and there was some debate going on over how to punish griefing in the game. There are many ways to accomplish this, and many games have attempted a large variety of them. Admittedly, now that everyone and their pet gerbil plays WoW, I doubt most people reading this even know what true griefing is. In any case, I thought back to a MUD known as Major MUD, it must have been one of the most popular truly harsh MUDs there ever was. It was not merely full PvP and full loot, it was also perma-death. You could die a certain number of times, and gained new "lives" as you leveled, but eventually, you had to start over. This gave the game extreme intensity and competition.

Now, the way that MUD dealt with griefing was fairly simple. If you killed too many people unprovoked, you became evil, and God would strike you with a lightning bolt completely randomly. This bolt could come at any time, and generally did significant damage to the player, albeit not killing him. In the IRC chat, I voiced this possibility as one that they had probably not considered (the game's head developer was in the channel talking with us at the time). The head developer, who is an entrepreneur with no prior development experience, thought it was a fascinating idea worth some consideration. The head moderator, who is an elitist snob, exclaimed that there is an answer to every problem, its the elegance of the solution that is important. The lightning bolt was not elegant enough for him, and thus was not worth consideration. It's worth noting that "elegance" itself falls under many guises aside from that word alone, but that is the most common means of expressing it.

I think that this reaction is worth exploring. I'm not going to claim that the lightning idea is a great one, or that it is a poor one, because although it was relevant to the question when it was asked, it is hardly relevant to the discussion of the reactions it induced. First, let's consider the head developer, the entrepreneur with no prior design experience. He has not socialized with game developers for the last 20 years of his life, he has become wealthy through a wide range of activities, and has made his fortune considering every possible solution to every problem based on its merits alone. His sentiment was that it was a fascinating solution that was simple and easy to implement. The head moderator, who has socialized with gamers and developers for years, instantly dismissed the idea over a vague concept called "elegance." This notion of elegance, like the racist's notion of skin color or the politician's notions of political parties, is a complete and total reduction of the question down to something so low and void of detail that it cannot answer any logical concerns about how the conclusion of rejection was actually arrived at. In other words: it is a wholly emotional conclusion, foregone by the bias of said moderator.

Let us consider the elegance, or lack thereof, of the lightning solution to the problem of griefing. What makes this decision inelegant: well, the primary reason seems to be that it is detached from other mechanics and lore surrounding the game. While respawning itself may be the result of a focusing stone that the player binds their soul to, there may be no mention of "God" in the game's lore, or very little. God may play little to no role in the game other than this mysterious lightning effect, and this may leave the player with the feeling that the mechanic is slipshod and poorly sewn together. Furthermore, the randomness itself may be considered lacking elegance, since it is outside of the player's skilled control. All of this may be true, but sadly we can only speculate over why this person felt the mechanic was not elegant. However, let's look at what does make the design elegant: For starters, it is incredibly easy to code in the rules for it. Second, the lore surrounding it can easily be matched to fit the game world of Mortal Online. For example, if players bind their souls to bindstones, killing another player may instead cause his soul to burn yours, which could manifest itself as "soul burn" rather than lightning. Perhaps in this manner "God" could be left out altogether. Players who witnessed a player-killing could then stalk the culprit, and as soon as they witnessed him take soul-burn, pounce on him in his moment of weakness, which gives even randomness an aspect of skill. This might even create very interesting patterns of sneaking for "evil" players, and of stalking for "good" ones, which may help turn the tables for griefing in a larger sense - the whole goal of what we are trying to accomplish.

So, is the idea elegant, or not? You see, the question of elegance is a completely useless one, because the application of it is so broad as to have no real meaning. Oftentimes a web of seemingly patchwork game mechanics can form a very well-balanced gaming experience, and, conversely, design rules that on the surface appear completely seamless can be wrought with loopholes. I recall in the game Asheron's Call, there was a problem with players logging out while they were being attacked by other players. The cause was that player vs player combat was becoming pointless, since the losing player would log out during combat and not log in for an hour or more. The solution? Make the player logging off take several seconds to log off, undergo a very bright animation that allowed players nearby to see that he was logging off, and cause all damage dealt to him to be about 4x normal damage. Does this sound elegant to you? Does it tie in with game lore, or any other mechanics? Either way, it completely fixed the problem.

The overarching notion of simplified reasoning, and game designers' (and programmers’) particular obsession with "elegance" is at best a distraction and at worst a baseless reason to reject an idea out of jealousy or other equally emotional grounds. The problem appears to permeate MMORPGs in particular, probably because they are designed to have several interlocking kinds of experiences and a whole myriad of features. There is an old saying that basically states that a good philosophy is one that only takes a few sentences to explain. MMORPG designers have an apparent obsession with applying that worldview to game mechanics to the point where they no longer consider the implementation's actual impact on play. Stated another way, they often don’t stop to consider what "elegance" means as it applies to the experience itself, instead often exhibiting a misguided tendency to focus on its application to the game's code or theory, which are both mere means to a greater end: the experiences they produce.

4 comments:

Will Armstrong said...

I'm not sure I follow what it is you're taking issue with here, so if I am off base with these comments, please let me know.

I think your beef is with close-minded developers using 'elegance' as a justification for dismissing ideas that don't fit their philosophies, rather than elegant solutions themselves.

Games are essentially a set of rules that organize competitive play; without rules in place, there's no way to determine success, even in single player experiences. The more complicated or in-elegant those rules are, the more likely the game suffers.

That's not to say that all games need to be watered down to simple rules. Chess, for example, is much more complicated than Checkers. That does not make Chess a poorer game; quite the contrary, as many would consider Chess the richer experience.

Part of being a designer is finding the proper balance between simplicity and depth. Too much depth, and your game becomes a complicated affair (imagine Chess with a 500 page players manual), while a game that is too simple (tic-tac-toe) can get dull quickly.

The more elegant solutions are ones that have been refined and intentionally restrained so they are quickly understandable by players. That doesn't mean they need to be simple, just that they need to function in a way that seems natural or intrinsic to the player.

That said, I think the idea behind the Lightning Bolt is fairly elegant, in the way it addresses griefing. It puts the perpetual fear of being destroyed by a powerful force outside your control into the griefer; the same fear that players feel is always looming over them.

I'm not sure what this moderator was thinking; striking fear into the hearts of those who enjoy striking fear into others is about as elegant as you can get. He probably wanted some kind of sub-system that ran all sorts of calculations and forumlae in the background that simulated his views of justice; hardly what I would call elegant, though.

You have my contact information, so feel free to hit me up if you'd like to discuss this at greater length.

Zenodotus said...

I understand your view. That is basically what I think most people mean, or at least think they mean, when they use the word "elegance" as it pertains to gaming.

My problem is that the word itself is so vague and malleable, no matter how you define it, that it is completely meaningless and disruptive to good design.

Even calling it "simplicity vs depth" lends itself to all kinds of implications, all of which can be taken in totally different ways.

My point is to avoid even thinking about the game in terms of elegance, because it serves no useful purpose. Only the way the game actually plays is meaningful.

Ultimately, if you like an idea, you will generally call it elegant, if you do not, you will generally say it is inelegant.

Name a mechanic in a game that you like, but also consider highly inelegant. I doubt you can, at least without specifying your definition of elegance right now as you read this for the sole purpose of answering that question.

Elegant is just another way of saying "I like," inelegant is just another way of saying "I not like."

Anonymous said...

I haven't yet come across anyone elitist enough to say that something wasn't elegant enough for a game... maybe I'm lucky.

Not going to try and defend the guy, but I always try to approach a situation from more than one angle. Just bear with me, this is a hypothetical.

I think if the moderator was arguing for anything that made sense beyond his assumptions, he was trying to preserve the elegance of simplicity.

Perhaps he was wrong in his assumptions and when you thought of a way to keep players from griefing (I don't know the context of the conversation), he assumed too much from too little information.

But!

His assumption may have revolved around a hidden implication - if it is possible to grief, and griefing is unavoidable in enough situations to merit a deus ex machina, then the game's rules may need to be tweaked in another more general way, rather than introduce a new mechanic to patch a problem that could be avoided at a lower level (such as introducing security safe zones, emergency "get out of hell free cards", etc.).

It's a common problem I run into when I design games. Whenever I find myself making these "one-trick pony" mechanics that work only for special cases, I stop myself and think, "how could I fit that in a general sense?" Sometimes I scrap the mechanic entirely when I can't think of anything else to do with it, but most of the time, one-trick ponies become huge multitaskers.


My reasoning::
Special cases arise when a formula is flawed (bad to begin with). And the more special cases there are, the more rules your players will have to learn. The more rules there are in a game, the easier it is to misunderstand their consequences - and thus players become frustrated.

I like to recycle assets. And if there's a mechanic I can use in more than one way, it's a winner.

iambinary said...

please write an article revolving around this _very_ interesting understanding, "Players have no idea what they want to do, they only know how they want to feel"

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