Thursday, April 29, 2010

You are not prepared!

Illidan, being unemployed for over a year now, allowed me to use his slogan. Otherwise I would have used the alternative title: "Is this still a game?". What I am talking about is the level of preparedness some players think other players should bring to a game. And it is getting silly. When I reported having gotten shot down in a level II mission in EVE, several readers informed me that the correct way to do a mission in EVE is the following:

1) You check the name of the random mission being offered.
2) You look up that name in an external mission database.
3) You refuse the mission if it is one of a handful real hard ones.
4) For the others you look up what type of damage the enemies use, and what type of damage they are especially vulnerable against.
5) You refit your ship to be resistant to the enemies damage, and to deal the damage the enemy is vulnerable against.
6) Only then do you accept the mission and start playing.

Am I the only one who thinks that this is just plain stupid? I would even call it cheating. And it isn't just EVE, there are websites explaining how to beat any given challenge in any given MMORPG, not just boss kill strategies, but also gold making guides, leveling guides, talent build guides, gear guides, bestiaries, everything, for every game. There is even a Farmville Strategy Guide, for heavens sake! How stupid have we become that we can't even play the simplest of games without a strategy guide? I can't find the link any more, but recently I read a guide on how to practice for the fight against the Lich King outside the dungeon, getting the movements towards and away from other players right, like a ballet, before going in and starting the fight. Apparently some people study harder for a session of evening entertainment than they ever studied for an exam at school or university. Is that still "playing", or is that just following a set of instructions?

Not only is that hardly a game any more, but it also serves as a giant pointer towards one of the real weak points of MMORPGs: They aren't adventures at all, they are only scripted, and therefore predictable encounters. Because the computer enemy is using a scripted set of moves, the best way to beat him for the player is to use a scripted set of countermoves. Gameplay then is reduced to rote learning that scripted set of countermoves. It is like if in Tetris the blocks would always fall in the same order, and to succeed you'd need to learn the optimal sequence of "right - right - turn - drop - left - turn - turn - drop - etc." Where is the fun in that? And as much as perfect execution of a fixed set of moves is to be admired in a ballet dancer, can we really call that "skill" in a game? If you were to suggest to those "skilled" players to try an encounter without studying it first, they'd tell you that you are crazy, and a n00b. Because hey, only a completely new player would have a silly idea like playing around with a game.

Just like Tetris is a better game for having random blocks falling down, MMORPGs would be better games if the challenges were less predictable. Because predictability is a vicious circle: The devs know that the players know that the encounter will always be the same, so the devs need to make the encounter harder to execute correctly. If the encounter had lots of random elements, there would be enough challenge in players having to think quickly, to react to what they see, to interact with the encounter, without having to demand split second reaction times. Virtual fantasy worlds have the potential to be world of wonder and exciting adventures. But instead lazy developers and minmaxing players reduced them to learning button sequences and moves by heart, with the only surprise left being the what epic from the loot table drops.

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