Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Mission Architect and Creative Gameplay

So shortly after my last post on user-generated quests, Cryptic actually released a user-generated quest system for City of Heroes. The initial reaction was very positive, and Raph Koster gave a particularly rosy assessment of the situation by claiming that users were just as good at creating game content as the designers were (perhaps not surprising that he would take this stance, given the extent to which his own virtual world emphasizes UGC).

Then came the bad news: players were gaming the system, in this case by creating missions designed to provide the most experience in the least time. Of course, anyone who bought the game did so with the explicit intention of “gaming”, but there’s clearly been some confusion about what exactly that means. In the minds of the developers, the players are supposed to be contributing to and enriching a virtual game world. In the minds of the players, they’re supposed to be gaining power as quickly as possible.

So there are a few points to take from this:

1) Players will always try to game the system. You should always anticipate the most abusive way a player could use a system and then either decide that you don’t mind, or find a way to prevent the abuse. You certainly can’t just hope players will be reasonable.

2) If you want to introduce a feature that’s as fundamental to gameplay as user-generated quests, you should incorporate it into the game from the beginning. The thing that made the system abuse particularly harmful in this case was the fact that City of Heroes already had a carefully crafted set of quests that lead the player through controlled level advancement. If, on the other hand, the game had been originally created with user-generated quests in mind, other elements of the game could have been altered to accommodate it.

3) I’m afraid I’m going to have to radically disagree with Raph Koster and suggest that most players are, in fact, terrible at designing games (or levels/missions). The main reason for this is that it’s so different from what they do as players. Most games involve power fantasies on some level, and when a player thinks about what they want from the game, it’s colored by the fact that they, as players, wanted power. What does this lead to? Unbalanced design proposals.

For that matter, you might see this as a problem amongst the professional designers, as well. They started off as players themselves, and when it comes time for them to design, they're going to come to the table with "what would I want to see in a game I'm playing?" If they're used to power fantasies in their games, then the things they "want" in their game is, on some level, power. This can result in what I'll call the Dragon Ball Z effect. Stories and mechanics can become more and more unbalanced over time if the goal is to more perfectly serve up a power fantasy.

Balanced design requires a different outlook. Sure, you can make a badass main character and make the player feel special, but in order to do more than that you have to be able to think beyond "what would I want" and think about "what makes for a more interesting game?" Outside of game design itself, there are a few places to exercise this idea. One of them is being a dungeon master.

When you're the dungeon master in D&D, you have vast power. As the arbitrator of world events you can decide if the players live or die. With that much power, gaining power is no longer an interesting objective - the goal of being a dungeon master is to figure out how to make an adventure fun for the players (and if successful, yourself as well). This is what I call creative gameplay - unlike the players, the dungeon master doesn't have a clear goal to work toward within the confines of the rules. Rather, the dungeon master has a goal that exists beyond the scope of the rules, and has to figure out how to make the rules a tool to reach it.

So the point is, if we think that user-generated content is something we want, we should be encouraging creative gameplay on the part of players, something that is fairly rare in digital games.



Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam said...

This isn't a counterpoint per se, but I think it's an important piece of the story.

"players can now create their own missions and story arcs, using the Mission Architect. Everything from the dialogue, what the baddies look like, where the mission takes place, what the mission objectives are, etc is now in player's hands. This is fantastic.

Of course, there are still limitations, but we find using a forum is good to arrange these in-game events, and we have an out-of-character chat channel, etc.

For example (excuse my gushing):
In an ongoing arc with my supergroup, the demonic power that fuels our leader's abilities became dominant (for an in-fiction reason), so after trashing the base (editing it slightly) and some roleplay, he went AWOL and someone else assumed leadership. All in roleplay: The new leader organised a meeting, and we decided our plan of action to track him down before he A) does any harm to himself B) harms our supergroups reputation. On the forums, we narrated what our characters were doing to track him down. Now, the ex-leader's player is using the Mission Architect to create a suitably dramatic story arc where we will bust in, disrupt whatever evil schemes he's been up to (which have been hinted at from interaction on the forums), and then fight an NPC copy of him (with identical appearance and powers, custom dialogue, etc). While his main character is unavailable for casual roleplay, the ex-leader's player is simply playing as another character.

Out-of-character-ly, I have arranged to introduce a new character I want to play by also putting him in that story arc as a boss type character. He's an indignant demon that has been bound in a magical cloak. I don't know anything else about the mission yet, but I've supplied the dialogue and appearance too. Excellent stuff for me: I get a nice dramatic intro for my character.

While all this is going on, there's lots of individual smaller character-developing sub-plots going on (not usually planned, just naturally developing from the free roleplay).

It's different from tabletop, and you have to hunt it down, but you can definitely roleplay in a satisfying way in an MMO, or at least, this one."

Ellipsis said...

Yes, very relevant and cool.

Here's the thing though: "we find using a forum is good to arrange these in-game events" and "On the forums, we narrated what our characters were doing to track him down".

Now, this sounds like a fun experience for everyone involved, but the role-playing is largely taking place beyond the scope of the normal system gameplay. The Mission Architect is not enabling this - it's just allowing you to include some in-game fights at the end at the end of the core experience, which is taking place on the forums.

So the issue is that the kind of experience being described isn't meshing particularly well with the game system it's taking place in. This isn't even taking into account the raw numbers: for each role-player, there are a dozen kids in there grinding just to pass the days.

Sam said...

I take your point that an important part of the gameplay is taking place off-forum. That said, it's not merely "an in-game fight at the end of the core experience" any more than the fights in D&D 4e are just codas - they're kind of the main event, and a significant reason why people choose that system to role-play in.

Sam said...

Also well-taken is the point that this is a comparatively small portion of the user base. This may turn out to be a fact of life - give role-players the tools to make their adventures, and you necessarily give twinks the tools to... twink.

Ellipsis said...

Yes, I am probably being too harsh on battles involved in this story, taken primarily from the fact that most battles in most MMO's feel identical to each other. Without actually having used the Mission Architect, though, I should refrain from commenting what kind of battle experiences it allows for.

And to the last point, look at Oblivion - it was planned to allow user generated content from the get-go, and it does have game-unbalancing mods freely available, but that doesn't ruin the game. Why? Because the game is about something else - becoming powerful as quickly as possible isn't a very interesting goal compared to exploring the world.