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Posts Tagged ‘DDO’

The year was 1996. I had just gotten my first external 28.8 modem. While surfing the internet, I had found a game called “Battlestar MUSH.” This game was a MUSH (RP-oriented MUD) about the old TV show Battlestar Galactica (the original show on ABC, not the recent one on the Sci-Fi channel). I played the game for a couple of years, and greatly enjoyed it at first. But after a while, the admins of that game decided they needed to make a change in the timeline and in how the game worked. They converted it into less of a MUSH (which is more RP/conversation oriented) and more into a MUD. One of the things the admins of that game loved was an old MUSH add-on feature called “Dynamic Space” or D-space. This was special code that allowed you to have rooms that would be dynamically generated when players were in the room, and then de-generate when no one was in there (to save on memory). This wouldn’t be so bad except, because D-space let you make huge massive maps with virtually no more overhead than a single room within the MUSH, the admins decided to map out the various ships of the “Colonial Fleet”, including the enormous Galactica herself, in all their gory detail. I remember just going from my Colonial Warrior’s cabin on the Galactica to meet up with a friend of mine on the hospital ship took about 200 moves, and probably over half an hour. Considering we only had about an hour of time to roleplay with each other, I thought this was a supreme waste.

When I complained about this on the BSM mailing list, I was called all manner of names. After all, “that’s how big the Galactica really is — we have the old maps from 1978 to prove it.” My point then, and I make the same point now (though more generally) was that “how big it really was” shouldn’t matter. The goal of a game is to have fun, not to be realistic. The goal of BSM was supposedly (even then, with all the D-space and other MUD-style coding) to roleplay. How much “roleplaying” was I doing by pressing “w, enter, w, enter, w, enter” to go west, west, west to find my friend Lyssa? The answer is: none. I wasn’t roleplaying, and I wasn’t having any fun. At the time I accused the admins (rightly so in my opinoin) of “sacrificing playability on the altar of realism.” I still think they did that, but I think this points out a more general truth. Often game-creators or game-masters become so slavishly bound to their vision of the game (in the case of BSM, the vision that they were going to map out the whole ship in gory detail) that how much fun it might be gets lost in the shuffle.

Before I go on, let me define what I mean by playability. To me, playability includes (1) Ease of “use” — an easy user-interface, easy to understand writing in the help files or game manual, (2) Fun — it should feel like play, not work, and (3) fulfillment of its overall goal. Note that by “overall goal” I do not mean the “vision” of the game designer, but the overall goal of the general game type. For example, a roleplaying game’s overall goal is for you to roleplay in it. An RPG that impedes roleplaying isn’t “playable.” Again, keep in mind this doesn’t mean “you can’t play it,” but rather, “you can’t play it as a roleplaying game.” See the difference? Similarly, by “ease of use,” I do not necessarily mean “easy to play” so much as accessible. For example, Champions is usually considered one of the most complex RPGs ever written. However, I would argue that the rulebook, at least through 4th edition (the last I’ve read) is extremely easy to use because it is accessible — it is written in a clear manner with wonderful examples to illustrate each rule. Thus it might be hard to keep all those rules straight in your head, but if you sit down to read the “Energy Blast” power’s rules, you’ll probably get it right away.

My main thesis today is this: the most important thing for a game to be is playable, as I have defined it above — easy to learn and use, fun to play, and compatible with its over-arching goal. Since this is a roleplay-oriented post I make today, the over-archging goal of significance here is “roleplaying.” If a roleplaying game doesn’t promote roleplay, support it, encourage it, make it “front-and-center,” then it has less playability than it should.

The problem with all that D-space on BSM, then, was this: it was not fun, and it was not promoting roleplay (it wasn’t hard to use, but that’s 2 out of 3 it failed on). Therefore, the playability of the game was low. Given that having fun and roleplaying are (or ought to be) the primary intentions of RPG design, why then did the admins of BSM make their game something that had neither incorporated into the design? The answer is that they had a vision of how the game should be, and they put that vision first, before fun, before ease of use, and certainly before roleplay. “We want to replicate as realistically as possible the world of Battlestar Galactica,” sums up their vision (though they never said it in so many words). And they sacrified everything else — most especially playability — to make sure their vision was brought to fruition.

I firmly believe the following rule holds in any game: Playability is all that matters. After all if the game is an incredibly accurate simulation but is not playable (is too hard, not fun, etc), who cares how realistic it is?

Unfortunately, GMs and game designers forget this rule all too often, or perhaps they never learned it. They develop a theory of how they want their game to behave, and what they think will make a good game or campaign, and then they call that the “vision.” They then work very hard to implement their vision, in spite of feedback from players telling them that their game isn’t playable (“This isn’t fun,” or “This is too hard,” or “This is hampering my roleplay ability”). Often, no apology is made for the lack of playability. Players who complain that the game is not playable (though usually not using this term directly) are regarded as “violating the vision” — as if somehow they are to blame for wanting a playable game, rather than the designer being to blame for making one that is not playable in the first place!

In my view, the designer is entirely at fault for an unplayable game. A game that sacrifices playability on the altar of the “vision” is frankly not worth playing. The reason is simple: You’re asking me (the player) to play a game that is not fun, just to further your own vision. And that, I am sorry, is not going to work. People play games to have fun. They play roleplaying games to roleplay. If your vision of your roleplaying game or campagin is stopping either of these things, the vision is wrong. There are no two ways about it.

Now, clearly fun is defined differently by each person. I am not suggesting that because I personally do not find something fun, it is automatically a bad game. No, that is a matter of taste. However, if when I say it isn’t fun, you respond, “Well I know it’s not fun, but that’s how I want it for thus and such reason,” now you are guilty of sacrificing playability on the altar of your vision. This is what the admins of BSM did — they knew D-space was going to hamper roleplay and they did not care, because they wanted D-space representations of the starships more than they wanted good roleplay on their server.

We can, of course, see modern analogues to this all over MMORPG-dom. Just check out Dungeons and Dragons Online. In that game, they want you to group up because “that is how one plays D&D — with a party”, and so they basically made it so the game more or less could not be soloed. When told during the beta and design phases of the game that this would hamper many people’s fun, their answer was the same as the BSM admins: “Tough. This is our vision.” The vision trumps playability. Nevermind that someone playing at 3 in the morning might not be able to get into a group. Nevermind that some people don’t like grouping with random strangers. Nevermind that their grouping interface leaves a lot to be desired, according to reports (I haven’t played the game myself). What matters is the vision — how much fun the vision leads to, be damned. Oh, and the fact that the game is an action game, more than an RPG, and thus hampers roleplaying, impeding it rather than promoting it? Too bad, little roleplayer… the vision is all that matters. Here again we have a game where the playability (ease of use, fun, and roleplaying) has been sacrificed to the almighty vision.

Unfortunately, too many designers these days, seem to care about their vision, rather than about playability. And I think that is why a lot of games fail. Take a look at the utter mess that is Dark and Light right now. Again the designers have a “vision” — basically a huge, giant world, a “sandbox”, but one that has no real help for new players, no way to get started, no real “content”, and nothing particular for most players to do. When told that their game is hard to use, not fun, and doesn’t promote roleplay, these devs similarly have responded that the players do not understand the “vision.” (They didn’t use that word, but maybe that’s just because they are French… heheh.) Once again, the vision is paramount, and playability be damned.

One of the harsh realities that game designers and, to a lesser extent, GMs, all end up facing is that you cannot survive for long without a playable game. The BSM designers found this out when their user base dropped by a good 50% within weeks of their “upgrade” to the high-vision but unplayable game. Star Wars Galaxies found this out when they lost thousands of subscribers after their April 2005 “Combat Upgrade” that turned the game into basically a chore to play. And eventually DDO released a new patch that allows level 1-3 characters to solo a bit more easily… showing that they are finally realizing that one cannot survive long with a game that ignores playability in favor of vision.

You would think, after this lesson has been repeated time and again with the same results, after so many games that sacrificed playability to the vision have either failed, or had to change to become more playable, that game designers would have figured it out by now. But they haven’t. A friend of mine said recently that this is because there are some mighty big egos in the game design world. The designers are all convinced of the absolute “rightness” of their vision. I suppose that might be so. But you’d think they could start learning from their mistakes, instead of making the same old ones over and over again.

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