[MUD-Dev] Continuous versus Discrete Functions

Caliban Tiresias Darklock caliban at darklock.com
Fri Dec 21 16:23:26 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


----- Original Message -----
From: "John Buehler" <johnbue at email.msn.com>

> Balance seems to be half (or more) of what vocal players concern
> themselves with (i.e. complain about) in these games.

Balance is just another word for fairness, and fairness is just
another word for any system that calls me above average. As long as
I'm in the top half of the player rankings, the system is fair and
balanced.

Well, it's a LITTLE more complex than that. See, the people I *like*
also have to be in the top half of the rankings, and the people I
*don't* like have to be in the bottom half. When someone says "the
game is not balanced", they mean "the wrong people are
winning". Those people being, of course, people I don't like.

A balanced system is a system that rewards what I value. This is not
really "balanced" by any rational definition, nor is it "fair".

To wrap it up into a more quotable package, I'd say: "No matter how
socially responsible a person becomes, he is and always will be
fundamentally selfish." People are two years old forever. We talk
about "psychological disinhibition" and "subcommunity relations" and
all this big stuff with scientific-sounding names, but what it
really comes down to is that every player on every game on every
platform in every genre simply wants what he wants when he wants
it. Every game is at its heart a method of providing the player a
way to *get* what he wants when he wants it.

And what he wants, in every case, is to win -- but each player's
definition of "win" is a little different. A "balanced" and "fair"
game is a game in which EVERYONE wins and NOBODY loses, which is
simply not possible because some segment of your population defines
winning as everyone else losing. If nobody loses, nobody can
possibly have won, so these people lose if there is no single
distinct winner.

I'll revisit that shortly.

> Is it possible that a smart game designer could obviate that
> entire problem by eliminating the player-versus-player race that
> forms the absolute backbone of games of this genre?

No. If your players cannot actively fight one another, they will
compare levels. If there are no levels, they will compare skill
points. If there are no skill points, they will compare any
available measure of power they can find, no matter how bad it
is. If there is no available measure of power, they will compare how
long it takes them to walk from one side of the map to the other. If
there is no map, they will compare how long they have been online.

Do you have any idea how stupid this gets? I got messaged recently
by someone who wants to buy my ICQ number. He wants a lower one than
he's got.  He can't find anyone under two million who will sell, and
he's trying to find one under two and a half before he buys from the
other guy. I don't know this person. He's just working his way
through ICQ numbers looking for people who might sell him their
account.

As if it's a RANK. As if being the #1 ICQ member actually MEANS
anything.  You know what it means? It means the last time Mirabilis'
database crashed and everyone had to sign up all over again, which
happened several times, this is the first person who got to the
signup page. Each time this happened, some of us got higher numbers,
and some of us got lower ones. Some of us refused to sign back up at
all, thereby guaranteeing at least that many people lower numbers.

You will NEVER eliminate PvP. Ever. Players will compete no matter
what. And they will take the competition seriously, no matter
what. (I once observed on a video game forum that the "score"
maintained by the game didn't measure any skill of import and a
REALLY good player would of necessity be getting *low* ones because
the high-scoring stuff is no challenge. Now I know what a lynch mob
looks like online.) The key is to DIRECT the PvP instinct toward an
area that will be productive.

The definition of "productive" varies significantly from game to
game, and should not be taken as any kind of statement that there is
some kind of universally "right" way to handle PvP.

> Not that continuous functions are a silver bullet at all, only
> that their dearth seems to be a symptom of the current game
> formula, which is a race for advancement.

I think the major difficulty there is that games always attempt to
define the advancement by taking the numbers out of it.

The key to encouraging this behavior or that behavior in a game
context is to make the behaviors you *like* measurable and
quantifiable. As the software industry has said for many years, "you
get what you measure" -- if you attach a number to it, people are
going to start performing boolean comparisons with it. If it has a
measurement, it must be important. If it doesn't, it must NOT be
important. Violate that little expectation often enough or blatantly
enough, and players will hate you.

But as soon as you attach a number to something, that's what people
are going to want: a bigger number. They want all the numbers as
high as they go. In my pen and paper campaigns, players are
astounded when I tell them they don't *have* to roll the dice to
create a character, and they can just pick the numbers they
want. When the player comes back with all 18s and max hit points, I
generally know that things aren't going to work out with him.  When
he comes back with some stat less than 9, on the other hand, I know
he *gets* it. It's not about what the numbers *are*, it's about what
the numbers *mean*. (I've also tried running campaigns where stats
are global, e.g. everyone has straight 18s or everyone has straight
10s. The straight 10s was a lot more interesting, I thought.)

And that's where the one problem with MMORPGs comes in. These people
are paying you. You have a little contract with them that says "if
you pay the money, you can play the game". So when someone comes in
and acts like a dick... not in an antisocial way or anything, just
"not right"... you can't do anything about it. In a P&P campaign
(that abbreviation always reminds me of the cartoon in the first
edition AD&D DM's guide where a group of heroes are playing the
"Papers and Paychecks" RPG in which they pretend to be workers and
students in a post-industrial society), when a player is not right,
you point him at another game where he will fit in. In a MMORPG,
however, when a player is not right you just keep taking his money
and pretend nothing's wrong. If you point him elsewhere, someone
else gets the money.

And that's where I think the real gravy industry will come
in. Instead of running one huge game, run PARALLEL games. Have a
special "scorched earth" style game where everyone kills everyone
and nobody cares who is or isn't an NPC. Have another game where
everyone's roleplaying political intrigue. Have another where people
are exploring a new land and homesteading it. When a player is not
fitting into a given part of the game, he doesn't have to leave the
world -- he just has to go to a new area of it. Draw the boundaries,
and let people cross over them. Between the worlds, have a totally
lawless area where you can do whatever the hell you want.

In short, stop making MMORPGs like the U.S. and make them like
Europe -- instead of small states where only a few minor details
change, make small *countries* where *everything* changes and nobody
particularly cares for the guy in the next country over. Nobody ever
says "I'm a European", they say "I'm German" or "I'm Austrian" and
there's absolutely no pretention of unity. I think people can accept
being at the bottom of the heap in Austria if they can still be VIPs
in Germany, so when differing play styles interact there will be a
recognition that each player is being measured on a different scale
-- and while Bubba the barbarian may be able to kick Buffy the file
clerk's ass eight ways from sunday, he's not going to be doing that
in the hall of records. And chances are Buffy's much more useful to
have around in there, anyway.

This post is much too long, as usual. Sorry.


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