[MUD-Dev] Meaning and entertainment - Farming and FedExing (was re: Do players enjoy farming?)

Michael Sellers mike at onlinealchemy.com
Thu Jan 22 16:24:58 New Zealand Daylight Time 2004


Dave Bacher wrote:
> On Mon, 12 Jan 2004 14:13:05 -0800, Freeman, Jeff wrote:

>> I'm not talking about actual *farming*.  I'm talking about the
>> slang-term "farming" - obtaining xp and items by killing the same
>> creature over and over.

> Players do not enjoy either farming nor camping.

> Camping and farming both involve mindless repetition.  Anything
> that involves mindless repetition is going to be viewed as a
> useless time sink by players.  And they are right.  The activities
> are not fun by any stretch of the imagination, and players are
> cursing your name every time they are forced to participate in
> them.

To me, this comment brings the two threads on quests and camping
together nicely, along with the 'barriers to enjoyment' thread.

In terms of 'quests,' it's not whether you have to take a token from
<a> to <b> that matters, nor how overt that transport is.  What
matters is how entertaining this is to the player.  And most often
what this reduces to is how meaningful the task is for the players.
For example, the most overt of FedEx quests (e.g. Indiana Jones
retrieving the Holy Grail for his father) can be highly
entertaining, if they're meaningful to the player.  And while
Horizons' quests can in some algebraic form be reduced to
token-moving, the reason they work is that they *matter* to the
player.  The advantage of 'hiding' the token-moving under otherwise
meaningful exteriors is that it allows more forms that don't quickly
become familiar, then rote, and then meaningless to the player.

In terms of waiting to fight monsters (camping and farming), the
same is true: players will do these if they must, but both turn what
is billed as a highly heroic and adventurous activity into something
as exciting and meaningful as waiting in line at the grocery store.
The reason players will do these things -- the meaningfulness for
them -- is so that they can build up their character.  But that
doesn't mean that camping and farming monsters are preferred
activities; they're more like burdens the players have to bear in
order to get where they want to go in their own goal-space.  Find a
way to allow the players to fight monsters without waiting in line
(e.g., spawning private adventure areas) and I bet the players will
gravitate toward that.

And this also brings in John Buehler's "barriers to entertainment."
At one level, every monster and puzzle is a "barrier" -- but I don't
think anyone would argue that all monsters should fall over dead
when you look at them, or that all puzzles should auto-solve
themselves.  That absurd extreme removes the ability for the player
to make meaningful decisions to resolve a situation, and thus
leeches the enjoyability right out.

One problem here is that there are different sorts of barriers, and
conflating them doesn't help design better games.  Some barriers are
*in* the game -- monsters, puzzles, insufficient gold or XP, etc.
In general, if the player feels he or she can overcome these by
making decisions using appropriate skill or effort, these embody the
enjoyment of the game rather than blocking it.  And then there are
barriers *to* the game -- a cognitively opaque UI or a game mechanic
that adds no meaning to the game.  There are lots of examples of the
latter of these, like monsters or quests that spawn on a set clock,
or a crafting system that encourages a player to create ten thousand
shirts.

Unfortunately the line between a barrier in the game -- a situation
about which a player can make a meaningful decision -- and a barrier
to the game is not always clear.  Having to sit with a book
obscuring your view of the game is often cited as a barrier to the
game, albeit one that many players put up with.  But is having to
wait to recharge mana or strength a similar barrier to the game?  I
don't think so (the player could obtain potions to make the
regeneration go faster, for example), but these two things are
nevertheless not entirely different, and whether these add to or
take away from enjoyment may be contextually dependent.

> Mindless Repetition is bad.  Mindless combat is bad.

In his talk at the Austin Game Conference, Raph talked a lot about
how people like to make things routine -- that is, we like to make
things mindless.  The less we have to think about things, the more
we like them (let me know of that's a mischaracterization, Raph).  I
think that's correct as far as it goes, but it misses a couple of
key points.  First is that routine-izing something is good *only if*
the task gets replaced by something *at least* as meaningful as it
was.

For example, in a game finding a weapon might be your first task.
Once you've done this a few times, doing it becomes dead easy and
thus no fun: it moves from being a barrier in the game to a barrier
to further enjoying the game.  So maybe the game abstracts this out:
after you reach 95% skill in "weapon finding", the game just always
makes sure that your weapon stops breaking, on the assumption that
you (the character) could go and find another one really easily, so
why make you (the player) worry about doing something that's become
tedious?  But if that goal isn't supplanted by something even more
meaningful, the game falls flat; it's just a treadmill.  In this
light, going from fighting bunnies to zombies to ogres is cool for
awhile, but sooner or later it loses its meaning.  Fighting stronger
versions of the same creatures isn't any fun because there's no
additional meaning -- no new skill, attack, ability, etc., and thus
no new decisions for you to make.  OTOH, layering new knowledge,
abilities, and thus opening greater decision-space for the player
maintains the meaningfulness and thus the enjoyment.

The second point is related to the first, and it's one I've made
before: games differ from every other form of software in that all
others conform themselves to some pre-existing task that the user
wants or needs to accomplish.  In desining games, what we're really
doing is designing an attractive set of tasks.  If there are no
tasks (including the sandboxy "find your own task") then there's no
interactivity.  If the tasks aren't attractive, people will go do
something else.  But having sucked the player in with an attractive
task ("go kill zombies"), we set up the expectation that there will
be another task that both builds on what they've learned from the
former one AND is *at least* as meaningful to the player given their
new knowledge and in-game abilities.  If this ever stops -- if the
content or mechanics become effectively stagnant -- then the
enjoyment drops right out of the bottom of the game (note that in
these terms, social contact becomes its own set of tasks with its
own meaningfulness curve).

Mike Sellers
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