[MUD-Dev] Problems with current RPGs

Koster Koster
Thu Jan 22 11:47:53 New Zealand Daylight Time 2004


From: Björn Morén

> How can the current computer RPGs be improved? Why do I not find
> them particulary interesting? The following are the points that I
> think designers are underestimating in their players.

Much snippage below:

>   - Players are creative

>     Most RPGs of today rely on the idea of experiencing
>     pre-created content... The designers assume that players like
>     to be entertained... such games easily break if new content is
>     not constantly added, which really isn't cost effective... In
>     order to make the game interesting enough it must have
>     detailed game mechanics

>   - Players are individual

>     ...Players do not want to be fitted in to predefined roles and
>     ways of playing, they want to pursue their own specific
>     lifestyle; they want to play *their* role....

>   - Players want detailed realism

>     Most players of RPGs want an extraordinary experience that's
>     different from the real world. They want to immerse... A game
>     would break by having too simplified and too non-realistic
>     game mechanics... Detailed mechanics means for instance
>     expanding the number of item attributes

Basically, a simulationist manifesto. Simulationist refers to
attempting to model basic behaviors in order to permit higher-order
behaviors to emerge.  The opposite approach is essentially
stagecraft; you make something that looks like a piano, and behaves
like a piano, but is not actually a simulation of how a piano works.

Searching for "simulationist" in the MUD-Dev archives should pull up
a few references. I think it's worth pointing out that by far the
main current of virtual design is NOT simulationist. The number of
simulationist games is fairly small both in the commercial and the
hobbyist world, and there's only one full-blown simulationist world
in the 100k club--UO. (SWG is half-heartedly simulationist, and only
in some areas--the economy, most notably). One of the chief
inspirations for simulationist design in the hobbyist community was
the game DartMUD.

But at the same time, as someone with strong simulationist leanings
myself, I have to play Devil's Advocate. All evidence suggests that
rather than the premises Mr. Morén starts from, the truth is that

  - players want to be entertained, not to be creative

  - players want to adhere to archetypes, not create their own roles

  - players are perfectly happy with stagecraft, and prefer clear
  rules rather than unpredictability

The reasons why the simulationist approach is so interesting to some
designers and players can be boiled down to these reasons:

  - it helps with content creation by providing blanket solutions to
  problems

  - it provides an ever-changing landscape

  - it avoids issues with consistency (it's damnably easy to get
  inconsistent stagecraft)

  - it can be approached and understood as a system, cognitively
  speaking, rather than as an isolated special case

But problems inhere--and yes, some of these are self-contradictory,
yet they always come up.

  - the content generated, because it is systemic, lacks unique
  touches. One noise-generated cloud is much like another; silver
  linings need to be hand-implemented. :)

  - the ever-changing landscape can actually irritate people, many
  of whom prefer a predictable environment. If Fred slew the Dragon
  in the Hoary Mntns, everyone wants to accomplish the same
  thing. The idea that the Dragon is gone forever is deeply
  disturbing because it feels like a lost chance for fun.

  - you get consistency, which also means predictability, and
  predictable content may as well not be there.

  - appproaching it as a system means that vast swaths of the net
  game content can be "consumed" at once, because once you recognize
  the underlying rules of the sim, you essentially have cognitively
  consumed the entire system.  Individual instances of the sim
  appearing are no longer interesting.

You can see echoes here, of course, of the complaints against FedEx
quests, against fractally generated landscapes, against all forms of
generated content, etc.

Long term, I remain convinced that the future lies in simulationist
approaches. However, stagecraft is not going away for the
foreseeable future, for our sims will have practical limits, and in
many cases, the sim is tougher to execute on than (and provides no
noticeable benefits over) the stagecraft solution for the same
problem. Despite the interesting design possibilities and gameplay
possibilities that good simulationist design can open up, it
currently cannot compete with stagecraft, and so we see games like
WoW ignoring basically all simulationist approaches in favor of
simply very well-executed stagecraft. The issue of course, and what
will likely drive the industry towards simulation over time, is
cost. As the bar rises on the stagecraft, the cost to develop large
MMOs with competitive content bases will become insupportable.

Much of the heart of the recent debate between Lee and Brad falls
here (and of many great debates Brad & I have had over the years as
well). It's somewhat ironic because both of them are basically on
the same side in this debate, it's just that Brad is using somewhat
more simulationist terminology than Lee is.

Cf. also the recent thread at TerraNova, from which a large chunk of
this reply comes:

  http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2004/01/the_value_of_re.html

-Raph
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