Saturday, November 5, 2011

Incomplete information as a game mechanic

I must say that Raph Koster is one of the persons where I have difficulties to make my mind up what to think about the guy. On the one side I love his theoretical work, his book about the theory of fun, his talks at various game conferences, much of which is very brilliant. On the other hand he doesn't appear to have a knack for turning that theory of fun into games which actually are fun. I found Star Wars Galaxies flawed in many aspects, and not just technical ones. And Metaplace was so boring, I wouldn't even call it a game. So, lets rather talk about his theoretical stuff.

At the Games Developer's Conference GDC 2011, Raph gave a very good (if long) talk. And I especially liked the part where he talked about incomplete information as a game mechanic (the "Strategy guides" bookmark at the link above). He makes fun about the people who say that reading a strategy guide, for example for a World of Warcraft raid, "isn't really cheating. Because it doesn't really tell me how to play the game. I still have to tap the button in my synchronized swimming exercise at the right time." He then points out that incomplete information is an important game mechanic of many games, like Poker or Stratego. Or even Scrabble, where he cites the LA Times about an online Scrabble Cheat-o-Matic site which gets 120,000 page views a day since you can play Scrabble on Facebook.

Having all the possible information at your fingertips through the power of the internet ruins any game which is built around incomplete information which isn't randomized. Bilbo sitting in a dark cave with Gollum and playing the riddle game today would have whipped out his trusty iPhone and been able to look up all the answers to every possible riddle on Google with it. Which is pretty much why riddles, which used to be an important part of role-playing games, have nowadays disappeared from the genre. Adventure games, which are all about riddles, were popular in the 90's, but are extremely niche now.

I would like very much if "figuring out stuff" would make a return to MMORPGs. But for that to happen, the game developers have to figure out a way to make the situations which need figuring out not static. If the problem is always the same, the first person to solve it puts the information on the internet, and the riddle is gone. What we would need is more randomness, less scripting. Unfortunately I don't see anybody even trying that for MMORPGs. The most random online RPG on the horizon is Diablo 3, and even that uses mostly scripted sequences, even if they are put on tiles which are randomly put together.

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