Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Sins of Experience Points

This post on Ben Garney's blog led me into two interesting discussions, one in the comments for that post and the other on Google Buzz. Both seemed worth reposting here.

I have no problem believing that social games can be good/great, while still having viral and monetization elements that’re only minor detriments to the experience.

I can also easily believe many social game devs are passionate about what they do, innovative, and excited to be reaching out to a broader audience. That you and your colleagues/competitors are smart people (likely smarter than me), ones who’re seeking to use your powers for good.

I’m just not sure, on a case by case basis, that this is what’s actually happening. That the games you see as a Good Thing are adding something to the lives of those who play it, rather than just taking something away.

More precisely, what disturbs me is that the impression that so many social games seem to focus on providing is an artificial sense of accomplishment. Yes, Diablo and Torchlight also have this as their primary “gameplay”; frankly, I despise both of them. It reminds me of the japanese “dating sim” genre- sometimes those games provide fascinating stories and engaging gameplay that centers around interacting with well-realized NPCs. But many others are primarily meant as an artificial substitute for a relationship with an actual human being.

Put differently: My untested suspicion is that most social games are like mental junk food. I’m not about to call a bag of cheetos “evil”. But if both the people making cheetos and the people consuming them didn’t see a difference between their chosen food product and some fresh fruits and vegetables, would you start to feel concerned?

Ben Garney:
So, your metaphor is that traditional games (let’s say Civ 5, Madden, and Braid for example) are wholesome and filling, while social games are junk food?

Precisely, except that I’d insert a “many” in before “social games”. Nothing says they have to be that way, and I’m heartened that you’re seeing a trend towards deeper gameplay.

A more on-target way to put it might be that incentive systems (gold, leveling up) are like sugar and salt. A potent way to enhance a substantive core product, but make them the core and you’re left with something of a much shallower value. Is Farmville a game? Is a candy cane food?

Ben Garney:
That brings us to the core of the issue. I agree – most social games are really light on the gameplay. But that doesn’t makes them evil – it’s just a sign of an immature market. Little kids will take sweets over a fine steak dinner. But as they grow up and their palates mature, they begin to appreciate the finer things in life. We will see the same in the social space.

Of course, some people prefer candy canes to steak their whole life. I think some gamers come from a place where they are used to fine steak and can’t understand why anyone is interested in McDonalds.

----- And from Google Buzz:

Brooks Harrel - I wound up making the longer version of this comment on the blog itself, but: The thing about social games that worries me is when their design's primary goal is to provide an artificial sense of accomplishment. 'Games' like that, I see as mental junk food: Hardly "evil", but you'll still be worried if the manufacturers and consumers viewed it as no different from eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

(To be fair, a better analogue for a normal videogame would be a burger from a family restaurant. Not the healthiest choice, but it has actual nutritious value rather than just flavor, grease, and the ability to fill up your stomach.)

Daniel Cook - I look at our beloved RPGs and one of the primary design goals is to 'provide an artificial sense of accomplishment'. It is an old technique. I'm willing to make the judgement that current social games and traditional games have about the same inherent value if we can look past the happy glow of past memories.

One thing I like about social games is the idea that they Whether the current crop accomplish that or not is besides the point. They offer a chance to ask the question "How do we make our games more social? How do we build relationships with games?" And that is 100% awesome.

Brooks Harrel - Actually, I can't stand playing Diablo 2 or Torchlight either, because those are also games that try to make artificial accomplishments the "meat" of the gameplay. Meanwhile, I have no problem with the cash system in Steambirds Survival- because your incentive system is being used to enhance gameplay that'd be worthwhile in and of itself, and your "rewards" provide new varieties of challenges, rather than over powering the core gameplay.

Food analogies always serve me well when explaining my thoughts on games, so I'll fall back on the one I touched on above: In my mind, games are to food as incentives (gold, exp) are to sugar and salt. They serve to enhance the substance of the product, but the value they add is relatively shallow. Junk food- stuff a health-minded parent would refer to as "pure sugar/salt"- is hardly going to kill you, but you'll likely be better off if you consume it in moderation. And it hardly deserves the label of "food".

At any rate, I'll readily agree that social games are by no means inherently bad- another 100% awesome thing about them is the way they're advancing the field in terms of accessible (open and simple) design.

Casey Monroe - I was a big fan of Diablo 2, so I'm curious about your thoughts on that. What specifically would you say is the "meat" of gameplay there? It's been a little while, but I don't think any of my accomplishments in Diablo 2 felt "artificial"—they all seemed to flow naturally from the mechanics of the game.

Brooks Harrel - Mmm. It's been nearly a decade since I touched that game, so I don't trust my memory enough to stand by any in-depth critique; the following is all written with Torchlight in mind first and foremost.

I'll try to quickly and clearly define terms here. My definition for "game" is an interesting challenge you learn to overcome. When I talk about the "meat" of the gameplay, I'm talking about the deepest challenges- the ones with the most layers of mastery for your brain (and not your virtual avatar) to attain, whether it's on a high-concept level (crunching numbers in your head, mulling over which dialog option to choose while the game waits) or an instinctive one (recognizing an enemy, identifying which attack their behavior indicates they're about to make, and reflexively hitting the right button for making the right counter-move).

Torchlight doesn't have much meat. There's the long-term logistical challenge of amassing power, which in practice means basic inventory management (is Weapon A > Weapon B?), choosing the right build options (is Skill A > B, C and D?), and developing a thorough pack-rat's awareness so as not to miss any loot. And there's the short-term challenge of the combat- avoiding attacks, aiming your own attacks, using special abilities and consumables in the right time/place/fashion, adjusting your playstyle (i.e. basic tactics) to take better advantage of your character build. In practice, virtually all of these aspects have the depth of a kiddie pool. Meanwhile, Resident Evil 4 took all those same game elements and created one of the deepest single-player game experiences ever.

I call Torchlight "junk food" because it makes heavy use of artificial incentives not just as a slot-machine payoff (i.e. "skinner box" mechanism), but as an artificial substitute for mastery- like how fast-food burgers inject meat flavoring into thin slices of freeze-dried meat and paint grill marks on the patty. Like real mastery, you can dispatch once-fearsome enemies with ease and pull of amazing stunts- but how much of that is because of you, instead of your virtual avatar? (Put differently: how much can be lost due to a corrupt save file?)

As the consumer, you get a direct payoff (good flavor/good game flow) and tangible evidence of your accomplishment (full stomach/powerful character). But those aren't the only things that matter about food, nor the only things that matter about games.

P.S: For a specific examination & critique of Diablo 2's design, I advise checking out

Casey Monroe - Hmm...I'm not going to say I disagree with you, I think what you're describing is an indictment of the entire RPG genre though. It can be fairly said that I'm not significantly better at playing Mass Effect 2 or Final Fantasy at the end of the game experience than I am at the beginning. My character improves and becomes more powerful, but I don't become a significantly better player--or at least, that's not the focus.

I understand that this kind of game is not for everyone, to be sure. But for comparison, I adored Diablo 2 and found Resident Evil off-putting. Is that because I prefer junk food to healthy food? I'm not sure that's true.

Brooks Harrel - I'm condemning one of the core features of the RPG genre- or at least arguing we treat it less like a food group and more like salt, i.e. something to add flavor to the "real" game experience. Of course, "genre" in this context is just a standardized game design formula, one which has seen a distressingly low level of innovation. Resident Evil 4 (not to be confused with its survival-horror predecessors), Mass Effect 2, and Devil Survivor are all welcome exceptions to this trend, producing jaw-droppingly good results by holding themselves to a higher standard in terms of deep gameplay.

As for Diablo 2 vs. your experience with Resident Evil: If I have a choice between McDonalds and a family-owned mexican restaurant that makes all their stuff by hand from fresh ingredients, I'm likely to choose McDonalds. It's not as healthy, but I'm no gourmet and don't usually like mexican food. The important thing is to be aware that something is junk food and consume it accordingly.

Casey Monroe - To be honest, I didnt find ME2's gameplay to be exceptionally deep. Same with Diablo 2. I don't think it follows, however, that the game itself is correspondingly less deep. I think that the depth in games merely comes from other sources--sources like story, pacing, etc. These forms of depth are not unique to games, but are nonetheless valid.

Brooks Harrel - I think I was still using "game" in the "interesting challenge" sense, not the "video game" sense.

But taking your point on its own: Oh yes, I agree wholeheartedly. I'll take plenty of games to task for falling short in that area as well. An action-heavy fps can have a moving, branching-paths story; a plot-heavy RPG can have great gameplay. But your audience won't call you out if you fall short in those aspects, because the precedents set by your predecessors left a very low bar. (Wait- are you saying Diablo 2's true depth was in its narrative?)

It occurs to me that I've actually got more to offer on some of these discussion points than just talk. is a core gameplay test build for a "scrolling shooter". The idea was to have a central part of the gameplay be the RPG mechanics that had the most gameplay "meat" to them, mainly loadout choices that noticeably affected the way you play.


Kemosabe said...

I disagree with a few minor points in your post, but at least 90% of it's on the mark.

One of the BIGGEST problems I see with the whole 'social game' idea is actually in the realm of MMOs. The sucessful games can be summed up as Warcraft, and the games from before Warcraft.

I hate WoW for reasons I'm not going to fully get into here; I'm not clogging your comments with a personal rant, and I was going to make a blog post about it in the near future anyway.

Anyway, looking mostly at Warcraft, since it's the biggest game and offender for the 'unfilling garbage' sort of games. Think about it: The only thing you can do is get bigger NUMBERS and shiney toys. The war that's so central to the world is totally static, alliances between certain races and groups make no sense, and there's no sense of lasting accomplishment. Everything you do NOW will just be pointless and obsolete the next time a patch rolls around, and god help you when it comes to expansions.

I said MMOs in general are guilty of this, and they are, but Warcraft is the worst of them in this respect. Some of the other games let you at least do something like build a house somewhere.

Even more distressing, games that show a glimmer of hope for breaking this mold: Darkfall, Vanguard, and Tabula Rasa to name a few (drawn from the large list of games I've been involved with myself) have been ignored, or worse attacked because "they aren't like Warcraft".

I can already see the beginnings of a very long and expletive filled rant forming, so I'll stop myself right there. I think I'm asking you a question: what's your take on (some) MMOs, since they seem to be the most grievous offenders when it comes to serving shit and calling it steak?

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh, you are all bad at video games aren't you? I doubt that all the people mentioned in the post above will read this and this is a very late comment by many months but some points simply cannot stand. Should this get a reply I'll be happy to elaborate but for now I have to address at least 2 things immediately. 1.) Torchlight: while upgrading your numbers is certainly a big part of it, your points on that can stand as its not important to me. Saying it has no meat is simply ridiculous. If you were to strip away from torchlight all the number juggling, the game that remains would be dynasty warriors: dungeon crawl. Dynasty warriors doesn't give you any sense of accomplishment through it's numbers. Granted, everyone loves seeing that they've killed a 1000 dudes but in general when you play it you don't try to kill a 1000 dudes, you are just a HORRIBLE MONSTER that happened to kill 1000 dudes on the way to your objective. Games like that are in truth closer to rhythm games than anything else. They are about timing your attacks just right and finding the beat of the game. They also foremost about efficiency. That is the name of the game. Its not about killing them all, its about killing them all efficiently. The skill increase from doing it and doing it well is pretty high and not something you'll do in a few hours of casual gameplay.

2.) this one is at the comment above this: MMOs
If the only thing that matters in MMOs was numbers I would be happier for it but anyone that has played for any decent period of time can tell you how atrocious the majority of the players are. There is a skill involved in these that goes beyond just what your gear is. Certainly numbers can compensate for it but for the ones that are playing the mmo at it's "end game" the ones that do well are the ones that capable of mastering the system the numbers are enhancing. MMOs actually have an interesting system of gameplay, something that uses the same system of buttons and cooldowns but without the numbers would be games League of legends, DotA, and HoN. if all you did was make those games 3rd person you have essentially a dumbed down mmo. Whereas most mmos use 20 buttons these games make do with 4.