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Archive for May 21st, 2007

A common element to most game design systems, from pen-and-paper games like Champions to online games like City of Heroes, is what I often call “Lowest Common Denominator” (or LCD) game design.

Now, by this, people sometimes presume that I mean targetting the game or its rules to the stupidest or most simple person. But that’s actually not what I mean by the term. Instead, I’m talking about the perceived need, on the part of system designers, to prevent every element of the game from being “exploited” and the penchant to design games that are “exploit-proof.”

First, what do I mean by exploits? Well, in this context, an exploit is tantamount to cheating… someone who is exploiting the game is deliberately using elements in ways he knows they were not designed to be used, but that make his character better, more efficient, more effective, or what have you. A great example of a common cheat, or exploit, in City of Villains is the so-called “vine room exploit”. This occurs in the villains’ “Respec” (re-specification) mission, at the end. There is a room full of regenerating vines that have to be defeated before they re-grow, and have to be kept in check to defeat their master, a giant sentient tree. This room spawns 12 vines per person in the team, so if you have a full 8-man team, there will be 96 vines. Trying to beat all 96 vines before they start re-generating is almost impossible for most players, and it makes the mission nearly un-winnable. Add in the fact that most people out for a “respec” (re-tool of their character) are doing the mission in the first place because there is something wrong with their character (i.e. it is flawed), and you have a recipe for trouble.

The players, however, figured out a way to cheat past this room with ease. They cheat past it by using their knowledge of the spawning algorithm. The room spawns 12 vines per player, but only those who are online at the time. So it has become common practice for all but one player to disconnect, have that player go into the mission and spawn the vines (only 12, because he’s by himself), and then have everyone log back in and re-join the team. (Because it’s a “task force” this re-joining is automatic.) This lets the players get past the mission with ease, of course, but it is really an exploit. The players are cheating their way past the mission1.

The typical response of a game designer to seeing this kind of cheating is to get angry with the players, or perhaps indignant, and to then clamp down — introducing code, or a game rule (in pen and paper) or what have you, to disallow the exploitative behavior. If they put new code in place to prevent this, then they have re-designed the game to take account of the “Lowest Common Denominator” in the game — the cheater.

Such a response would be a reaction to players abusing the system, but LCD design decisions are by no means limited to that. Often LCD design ends up with builders and designers of games trying to figure out ahead of time, “How can players cheat with this system?” and then head it off at the pass. When they design like this, they are designing for the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) of players: a mostly-mythological group called “the exploiters” or “the cheaters.”

The reality, though, is that all things being equal, most players do not cheat. Play a typical game of Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders. Generally, people do not cheat at such games. Indeed, there are very few rules in Monopoly that actually prevent cheating. If you wanted to, you could just take money out of the bank and give it to yourself but, barring players fooling around and not playing the game for real, that generally doesn’t happen. And the reason it doesn’t happen is that it defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place, which is to build the best real-estate empire in the game.

Now, assuredly, there are some people who want to win “no matter what” and will cheat if they can. But just in general, in my experience, people tend not to cheat at most games, most of the time. People are basically honest. And yet, cheating in online RPGs and even sometimes in table-top RPGs (like the friend of mine who cheated on using Endurance in Champions, until the GM caught him at it) seems to be everywhere. One developer called it “epidemic” in proportions. With all this cheating going on, all these exploiters, it’s no wonder that designers feel like they have to take up huge amounts of their time and energy to prevent that cheating, to keep everyone honest. But this leads to the obvious question: why do so many people seem perfectly willing to cheat in an online game, when they ordinarily are honest in the rest of their lives?

I think the answer is not what most people would guess. The initial, knee-jerk guesses usually are things like, “People are scum” or perhaps, “Internet jocks are scum”. A lot of folks point to the anonymity of the internet — you are hidden so you behave in a way you wouldn’t in real life, face-to-face with other human beings. I am sure those explanations are true in some cases. But I do not believe, at all, that those explanations are generally true for the majority of players.

No, to understand the reason so many people cheat, we need to explore fundamental computer RPG, and specifically (because this crops up so much there), MMORPG, game design theory. I say this because I think, at the basic level, the cause of all this cheating, which then leads to the need for “LCD game design” to counter-act it, is quite simple and basic: the design is fundamentally flawed.

Before I explain why I think the design is flawed, let me first explain my position about why a person plays a game. The fundamental, basic reason to play a game — any game, including an MMORPG — is to have fun. That is pretty much the only reason anyone ever plays a game. People do not (generally) play games to make money — they work to do that. They don’t play games for their health — they exercise or engage in sports to do that. They don’t play games to become better parents, teachers, or rolemodels. They play games for one reason — to have fun.

That being the case, it stands to reason that players will play games they find the most fun (playing one that isn’t fun is a waste of your time), and they will try to have the most fun possible during their gaming hours. And this is the fundamental flaw in the batches of MMORPGs that exist to date. To put it bluntly, most MMORPGs are designed to be work, and not fun.

To see that this is the case, take a look at almost any MMORPG. They build into the game reward structures that pay off players who are willing to engage in tedious, boring, repetitive behavior over and over again for hours. “Spawn camping” in Everquest comes to mind — players would sit and “camp out” at the spawning location of some creature that had a 0.001% chance of dropping some great treasure (loot), and they’d wait for it to spawn, kill it, loot the corpse, get nothing… wait for it to spawn, kill it, loot the corpse, get nothing… try again… try again… Often for hours and hours on end. Except to some very strange and probably mentally impaired individuals, such behavior for hours on end is not fun — it’s boring. And sadly, MMORPGs to the present day, continue to reward tedium, repetition, and sitting through hours of boredom, with the greatest benefits in the game.

Yes, this is true in City of Heroes too. Take their “Accolade” badges. These are badges that give you a unique power you can only get with the badge, or extra hit points or endurance beyond what you normally could get — and to get an accolade you have to do incredibly tedious things, like get the badge you receive for “defeating 1,000” of some enemy type. Thus you had players, who had a mission for, say, war-wolves, “farming” the mission — running the same mission over, and over, and over, to get their 1,000 wolves. Again, this is like spawn camping — repetitive, boring, not fun… but also the only way to get the reward.

Tedium and time-sinks are thus built directly (and purposely) into the game. The developers do this deliberately to keep people playing, subscribing, and of course — paying. They know players will want the rewards, so they basically set the game up with a host of time-sinks, making it so that you can only get the reward if you play for hundreds of hours, and thus, subscribe for many months (giving them many dollars of your money to do so).

And this, my friends, is why players cheat so much in online games: because what they want requires tedium and boredom, but tedium and boredom are not fun. So players try to circumvent the “not fun” parts of the game so they can get to the good stuff (assuming there even is any, which for many games there doesn’t seem to be). Players even have a name for what these games require of them: “grinding.” You do not call something that’s fun, exciting, and enjoyable a “grind.” This shows just exactly what the players think of it.

The need for cheat blocking using LCD design, therefore, is the result not of player flaws, but of fundamental game design flaws. Because the game is designed to be a time sink, first and foremost — a “grind”, a “treadmill” –, it is therefore designed to be more like work than like fun. Implicitly or explicity the designers know this, because they know all the work they try to force you to do, players (not finding work to be fun) will try to get around any way they can, and thus cheat/exploit/etc. Therefore the designers have to put in all sorts of roadblocks that prevent you from circumventing the work, and getting the reward without the time they want you to invest. In short, player cheating is fundamentally (in my view) the game designers’ fault in most cases.

Let’s go back to our example of cheating: the COV “vine room” and the “login/logout” cheat (exploit). Why do players use this exploit? Because the final room sucks. Most players will tell you that they hate it. That it is not fun. That it is annoying. Some will say “unbeatable.” Most will say, “Tedious.” These things are not enjoyable, and players are trying to play the game for their enjoyment. What’s going on here is, bluntly, the designers built a really bad challenge, and the players hate it because they do not find it fun… so they are trying to get around it.

This suggests that bad game design is the most common cause of all the rampant cheating. If the games were designed to be addictive in order to keep you subscribing, nobody would cheat. Instead, they’re designed as a time sink — just fun enough that you keep sinking time into it, but otherwise mostly a grind. And so players, not having much fun at it, try to by-pass the grind and get to the “good stuff” (the rewards). This was seen in Star Wars Galaxies, for example, with “AFK grinding” in tons of ways — people would write macros and let their character grind on auto-pilot, doing everything from dancing experience to loot hoarding. The players did this because there was so much mindless grinding involved, and it was so boring, that they just did not want to sit there the whole time.

If I’m right (and obviously I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t think I were), then the best — and I’d submit the only — way to really get rid of cheating, is not to do LCD game design and put in blocks to cheating, but rather, to design a game that is lots of fun from start to finish, all the way through, and involves no time sinks, no grinding. Take away the boring elements, and the players will play the game for fun, and won’t try to by-pass parts of it… Thus, they will have little or no reason to cheat.

Of course, there will always be a small group that just wants the best stuff and doesn’t want to have to “earn” it at all — just wants it now, ASAP. You just have to live with those people, I think… they are a small minority. The main problem is that all players have a slightly different opinion of what is fun. However, even this is not as insurmountable as it sounds. Whatever your game is like, if it’s built to be fun it will have an audience of people who like it. But if it’s built to be a “grind” … a “treadmill”… a time sink, in other words, it can’t have been built to be fun for anyone.

LCD game design is one way to handle cheating. But it’s only necessary if your game is a boring time sink to begin with. If the game is fun — really fun and enjoyable — to people, then most of them won’t cheat, and the whole need for LCD design and blocking cheats and exploits becomes much smaller. Not nonexistent, to be sure… but much smaller.

1 I want it understood that I am in no way trying to denigrate the people using this exploit. I, myself, have used it to get past this mission because the mission, frankly, sucks. Keep in mind that my thesis in this article is that bad design leads players to want to cheat. The common use of this COV respec exploit is the fault of the developers, who designed a horrible mission ending, not the players, who are only trying to avoid something that is no fun.

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