Archive for May 22nd, 2007

Today, I’m going to focus on a phenomenon that seems to come up in game design an awful lot these days — a phenomenon I call the It’s My Way or the Highway design philosophy. People with this design philosophy take the basic stand that there is a single way (or set of ways) they want you to play the game they’ve designed, and playing it any other way is “wrong” (and perhaps they even go so far as to call it an “exploit”, or even imply that it’s “unethical” to play the game any other way).

This philosophy is, in a sense, quite new in RPGs, and in another sense, quite old. If we think back to the original days of the old pen-and-paper RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons or the original Champions game, we will find pages and pages of rules in their rulebooks. The original Dungeon Master’s Guide had something like 250 pages of text, in tiny print, describing everything from how much treasure should be found in an Orc lair, to how tall a dwarf should be under normal conditions. Almost everything you could imagine was covered: for example, half-orcs and dwarves were listed as having (racially) “antipathy” toward each other.That may sound an awful lot like it’s “My Way or the Highway.”

However, in these original texts, it was always stated emphatically, and repeatedly, by the book’s authors (the game designers — E. Gary Gygax for D&D; Peterson and McDonald for Champions) that all rules in the book were subject to the GM’s discretion. The DM’s Guide was quite clear, that the rules written therein were guidelines for the DM. They were not written in stone. And so, in point of fact, despite the apparent detail of these rules, they weren’t “My Way or the Highway” at all. Players could use whatever elements they wanted and ignore others. Heck, these books often gave the GM examples of rules you could ignore if you wanted to simplify things. The key, as the Champions books pointed out over and over again, is for you and your players to have fun, as that is the point of any game.

On the other hand, during the same time period, “My Way or the Highway” did exist, in very real terms, on a more localized scale: the individual campaign. In many cases, individual GMs or DMs ran their campaigns in a fairly draconian fashion (I certainly was one), and you either played their way, or hit the highway. If the individual GM of a Champions campaign decided he didn’t like the Desolidification power, he disallowed it, and as a player, you had no real choice — either you accepted that and erased it from your character sheet, or you left the campaign.

In those days there was a division then, in where the game was flexible and where it wasn’t. At the design level, RPGs were designed to be open and relatively flexible. At the camapign level, individual GMs could exert iron-fisted control over their players’ choices and play styles, if they wished (in practice, some did, and some didn’t).

In today’s world of computer RPG design, however, the separation between the game designer and the GM has blurred. The computer runs most of the things the GM used to run, and it does so under the instructions of the game designer. Thus the global and local control forces have merged into one, and in this setting, if the “GM” decides “It’s My Way or the Highway,” this is equivalent to the designer deciding the same. As a result, arbitrary and restrictive conditions have found their way into the current batch of computer and online RPGs at the design level rather than the local level.

Let’s use some examples to show what I mean. There are threads on the forums of most MMORPGs about “forced grouping.” The basic idea here is this. The designers have built a “massively multiplayer” environment. They want it to be used as such. If they wanted it to be a “solo game” (where you play alone) they would have designed it as such. So, they build a structure of some sort into the game, where it is either unwise, or impractical, to adventure without a group. For example, in EverQuest, beyond a certain level, soloing was possible but as slow as molasses. Anyone who had any notion of one day gaining a level or two, would group — period. In Star Wars Galaxies, at least in the previous version of it, there were large content areas (Death Watch Bunker, the Warren, etc) that simply were so hard and full of such powerful creatures or NPCs that no single player, of any sort or any level, could possibly solo them, and thus grouping was required. Sometimes designers choose to “encourage” grouping by making experience gain just be a good deal faster (COH is like this, for the most part). Dungeons and Dragons online, at the time of this writing [Editor’s note: This post was originally written in June 2006], basically cannot be soloed at all (alhough they are thinking of changing that eventually).

What has happened here, is that the game developers have decided that “grouping is the correct way” to play their game, and then they set it up so that it’s their way, or the highway. Don’t want to group? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!

All sorts of reasons are tendered for the “It’s My Way or the Highway” philosopy. Lots of hand-waving is done about the “Designer’s Vision” of the game. People insist that there is no point to playing a multiplayer game if you don’t group. And there may be other arguments — some compelling, some not. But what is fundamentally going on here is something deeper and less obvious: Person A is trying to force person B to have fun a certain way. In other words, “Have Fun My Way, or it’s the Highway.”

When you get right down to it, this is at the heart of the matter. Game designers will readily agree that playing a game is about having fun, but then refuse to acknowlege that fun can be different for everyone. This is a convenient oversight, because it allows them to be as iron-fisted as they wish in their game design. If a lot of players start doing something the developers don’t want, they never stop to ask, “Why is that thing fun?” Instead they try to stop it.

But of course, since games are all about having fun, if a group of players is doing something the designers didn’t want or anticipate they would do, the default assumption should be, “People must be having fun doing it.” Or perhaps, the default assumption should be, “People are having more fun doing that, than what we set the game up for them to do.”

Going back to our “forced grouping” example, imagine instead a game where grouping is 100% optional. Some minor benefits accrue if you are grouped, perhaps, but in general grouping or soloing work equally well. (COH is like this most of the time, though not in all cases.) Imagine in such a game if, given the option, the vast majority of players solo rather than group. The question shouldn’t be, “How do we stop them soloing?” (i.e. “It’s My Way or the Highway!”), but rather, “Why are they apparently finding it more fun to solo than to group?” After all, players do what is fun, so if they are soloing, the soloing part of the game must be more fun. Find out why that is, and add that fun element to the grouping side of the game, and just naturally players will start to do both.

As a player, but also as someone who likes to think about design philosophy, I, for one, would like to see game designers get away from the “My Way or the Highway” philosophy, and build more flexible, open games with more options. Yes, these options might allow for “uber” builds or for soloists who never need to group. So what? If that’s what is fun for some players, let them do it. The only time it’s a problem is if those activities decrease the fun for other players. That suggests to me that the empasis has to be, not on stopping me from soloing, but on making sure that my soloing does not “grief” other players.

It seems to me that if all the effort the designers spend on balancing every last iota of the game to fit their narrow definition of fun (“It’s My Way or the Highway!”), were spent instead on just making sure players can’t harm each other by having fun in whatever way best suits them, we’d have better games, with more player freedom, and less restrictions… and it would lead to more fun for everyone.

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