A little change’ll do you good.

f you\’e2\’80\’99ve read this blog, you\’e2\’80\’99ve no doubt come across the writings sometimes of HRose (who sometimes posts as Abalieno – one handle is just not enough for this man!). He writes, very vehemently, and very often about MMO design, despite English not being his first language. Suffice to say that we differ on many occasions. Still, I read his site regularly. Much for the same reason I read Mother Jones along with National Review. If you read just things you agree with, eventually you become complacent in the belief that the world always agrees with you.One of the precepts HRose often harps on is that, not to put too fine a point on it, MMO designers are pussies. By that, he means that they are afraid to make Big Changes to their games. In his view, MMOs are living worlds, living worlds grow, and players \’e2\’80\rdblquote and designers \’e2\’80\rdblquote should embrace growth and change as part of the game\’e2\’80\’99s life cycle.

To wit, his comments about SWG\’e2\’80\’99s recently announced radical redesign:

Don\’e2\’80\’99t get me wrong, I *strongly* support the determination to make radical choices instead of branching the game into optional rulesets that go nowhere and just make the game even harder to maintain and improve. Those choices and their courage is fundamental to create good games. But then these are those fancy thoughts I keep raving about and despite I strongly believe in their validity I also don\’e2\’80\’99t expect them to be accepted by bigger companies. Instead they are doing this and I\’e2\’80\’99m positively surprised. They aren\’e2\’80\’99t sitting on their asses while watching the game sinking in its problems, nor they are gliding on the surface, scared to do anything else. Instead they go more radical than how I would ever expect. And this is good. This keeps things alive, good or bad, but alive. It rises the interest, people talk again about the game, polemize. This conflict fuels the creativity and puts the premises about what will follow. This disquietude is always good, no matter about the actual design or my opinions about the details.

The problem here, as you can see from almost any message board even periphally related to MMOs at the moment, is that never has the old LtM catchphrase \’e2\’80\’9cWe fear change.\’e2\’80\’9d been more apt. Players fear change. Players have been trained to fear change. Whenever they log in and their character is different? It\’e2\’80\’99s usually not for the better. This is because most designers are, well, stupid (as well as being pussies) because they tend to balance player abilities down to the lowest common denominator, usually with a really big hammer marked ZOD. We\’e2\’80\’99ve housebroken the players, and now, like shivering puppies, they log in and hope that Master isn\’e2\’80\’99t coming at them with a patch note for what they did in the kitchen.

This becomes universal. I\’e2\’80\’99ve been playing a new game recently (City of Villains, which, I add, has some really fun content) and have been tearing up the landscape with my army of ninja assassins. And while playing this, I\’e2\’80\’99ve thought – and said to myself – \’e2\’80\’9cOK, this is going to be nerfed hard. I shouldn\’e2\’80\’99t be this powerful.\’e2\’80\’9d It\’e2\’80\’99s reflexive. I didn\’e2\’80\’99t think \’e2\’80\’9cHey, thanks to playing MMOs and MUDs and D&D for pretty much all my freakin\’e2\’80\’99 life, I think I\’e2\’80\’99ve really nailed the whole paradigm of autoassisting targets and using the advantage of multiple pets that I have to concentrate damage on a target\’e2\’80\’9d. I think \’e2\’80\’9cI shouldn\’e2\’80\’99t be this successful.\’e2\’80\’9d

Am I wrong?

This isn\’e2\’80\’99t limited to players. Developers fear change too. They can be beaten down just as hard; the hammers are just called different names. Message board posts. Emails. Subscription numbers. Publisher pressure. Going home and getting yelled at because your significant other can\’e2\’80\’99t understand why you people just don\’e2\’80\’99t fix X, Y, and Z. After a certain amount of time, inertia kicks in out of self defense. If you don\’e2\’80\’99t change anything, you don\’e2\’80\’99t make any mistakes, after all. Except for the players who believe their gameplay is already irretrievably broken, and your inertia is just cowardice over not making the decisions that have to be made (because designers are, as I mentioned previously, pussies) and this game is broken and I\’e2\’80\’99m gonna see you in Dark City of Shadowquest 3: Electric Boogaloo.

Clearly, the only proper response is to begin drinking heavily. Sadly, you can only drink so much before your liver explodes. (This is the unspoken reason of why we have such turnover on MMO live teams. It\’e2\’80\’99s from all the livers exploding.)

More seriously. The dichotomy here is that players expect a living, changing game world – but one which they\’e2\’80\’99re comfortable in. The unspoken dirty secret of game design is that, if done well, you\’e2\’80\’99re never supposed to challenge your players – you\’e2\’80\’99re supposed to make them think they\’e2\’80\’99ve been challenged. You convince them that they\’e2\’80\’99re really skillful and managed to beat something that most people couldn\’e2\’80\’99t, because they\’e2\’80\’99re special. Note that most people aren\’e2\’80\’99t special – if they were, it wouldn\’e2\’80\’99t be special! QED! So it becomes a very subtle fan dance. Look! You mastered a challenge! Cool! (Incidentally – this is why most MMOs are the way they are – with level grinds where you invest time into becoming more powerful. Everyone has SOME time.)

So players want the illusion of change. They want to believe that they\’e2\’80\’99ve changed the world – but they don\’e2\’80\’99t want the world to change in a way that shuts them down. It\’e2\’80\’99s not fun when they log in and their favorite city has been wiped from the map. Even if it\’e2\’80\’99s because another player fought their way to Space Platform 5 and hit the switch and in a Dynamic Event triggered the Really Big Explosion. All the first player sees is hey, I can\’e2\’80\’99t hang out at the player-run tavern at 5th and Main any more. WTF. Fix plz.

And if even this most cosmetic of changes can be resisted – imagine logging in one day and your entire game has changed out of whole cloth. You\’e2\’80\’99d be a little miffed. Since I haven\’e2\’80\’99t played SWG in over a year, I can\’e2\’80\’99t really speak to how their players are taking this radical redesign. I suspect the SWG has enough Zod hammers in their court without my help anyway.

But the thought of radical change with little notice frightens me on multiple levels. Despite HRose\’e2\’80\’99s belief, change for the sake of change is not good. It only serves to break the puppy\’e2\’80\’99s housebreaking. It\’e2\’80\’99s not fun to log in and have the physics of your particular world change at random, or to have to parse patch notes and developer postings with a Talmudic intensity to see how you can best eke out your dominance this week.

HRose is right about one thing, though. Change will bring polemics. Unlike him, I don\’e2\’80\’99t see this as a particularly good thing.