Monday, June 19, 2017

Revealed Preferences in Gaming: Simplicity

I play World of Warcraft, so I read threads at r/wow over at Reddit a lot. Today's thread is a complaint thread regarding the Mythic Plus system of "affixes", and why some of them aren't (allegedly) working as intended.

(Spoiler: It is working as intended.)

Now, a bit of context: The Mythic Plus system is an adaptation of Diablo 3's Nephilim Rift system. Your character gets a keystone, which enables the dungeon instance server to adjust the difficulty of a given dungeon instance to a specific value. Above a given rating (which modifies the HP and damage of all monsters therein), one or more qualities are added; these are the "affixes", and they impose additional mechanical constraints that (ideally) compel the players to adjust their play to mitigate the additional risk.

What actually happens most of the time is that the majority of the group doesn't adjust at all, so all of the consequences get foisted on the healer (and sometimes also the tank) because most of the consequences come in the form of additional damage- and that makes it the healer's problem to deal with. Healers are not happy. Quite frankly, this entire community response to additional difficulty and personal responsibility was entirely foreseeable and thus preventable.

I've long maintained that the developers of this game do not play the same way as either the elite players or the common masses, and therefore has no appreciation for how their game actually works in actual play. I wish this was not confined to World of Warcraft, but it's not. Time and again, in all gaming media, I see this emergent behavior reveal itself. No, it's not new either. Back in the 80s, there was a cartoon in Dragon Magazine of an adventurer crashing through the walls of a labyrinth instead of navigating them as intended.

Gamers Always Take the Simplest Approach Possible

Count on it. It's a foreseeable fact borne of gaming's origins in training for war. Whenever possible, use the simplest approach you can employ. For many games, in many genres and media, that means deliberately avoiding mechanics in favor of tunnel-vision levels of focus on taking out the opposition. (Which is what "tunneling" means in such context.)

The DPS group members take avoidable damage in favor of focusing upon the bosses standing between them and completion, which is why many Mythic Plus affixes that the developers intended for DPS to handle instead become healer problems. The same often occurs to affixes intended for tanks to deal with. Why? For the reason mentioned in the link thread: it slows the group's progression through a timed event down. As it's only damage output that kills bosses, they get away with it more often than not, especially with pick-up groups (PUGs). And no, tolerance of healers who can't hack it is not present.

In any game with a metagame to speak of, count on this trend dominating over time. Count on players finding ways to break complexity in favor of simplicity. Count on designers, developers, and publishers trying in vain to counter this trend, tilting at windmills time and again only to fail and fall before the inevitable.

The same trend also goes towards interpretations of abstractions. One of the contribution factors to tabletop RPGs becoming as they are now is due to players being bloody-mindedly literal in their take on gameplay abstractions (not helped by poor technical writing on the part of designers, developers, and publishers)- something still an issue in other media and game genres often spun off from tabletop wargames and RPGs. The rise of Mech Piloting comes in part from this long-running issue.

Look at the walkthroughs, guides, etc. for various games. Look at how much they simplify the game down to a level where players do not have to think about what to do or how to do it. Look at how those guides aim at maximum efficiency, putting forth least effort for most effect to accomplish tasks as fast as possible for maximum reward. With the Internet, only an otherwise-insignificant number of players need actually do that work for the benefit of a massive audience of fellow players looking to simplify their play.

You better believe that "weaponized autism" is a thing. That's the extreme form of gamers seeking simplicity in their gaming. If you want an image to summarize it, image that gamer demolishing those labyrinth walls to brute-force a straight line through to the goal of the dungeon. That's what gamers want, as revealed by over a generation of behavior, to do: radically simplify their way to the solution. Damned by the consequences.


  1. Once upon a time (Burning Crusade) there was a meta-game to force players to deal with that type of issue in a group-optimized way. Instead of having the game create groups for them players had to convince other human beings to take a chance on grouping with them. Players on their server . . . which meant reports on their behavior would be relayed to other possible group members.

    So DPS didn't stand in the fire because tanks and healers would get pissed and refuse to group with them any more. Any DPS wanting to do lots of runs learned to be good team players. Some even provided consumables or did other things to improve their reputations.

    But that restricted group play to the part of the subscriber base with some minimal social skills or a willingness to sacrifice for the group (lacking social skills, I tanked). So Blizzard created the automated LFG function. Good-bye, server reputations, good-bye contributing to the success of the group.

    1. Welcome to the reality of running a game as a business.

      But that's not all. In the aim at simplifying things, a lot of players never got a shot if they weren't solidly in a guild back then. Why? Because they played characters that lacked abilities to speed up and simplify those dungeon runs.

      In the case of TBC, that was Crowd Control. It was very common to see "Tank/Healer LF3 Mages." Hunters were also in demand if they mastered their trap usage. Rogues also had some demand due to their ability to lock down mobs with stuns.

      The rest of us? Nope. Get a guild, switch to something in demand, or get benched. Enough players found it simpler to quite altogether that Blizzard started to take notice going into Wrath of the Lich King and put in more and more mechanics, along with changes in encounter design, meant to allow more players to play the game as desired.

      "More", not "all", which is what is the expected norm now. (Anyone who ran Halls of Reflection at the time knows what I mean.)

      This simplicity trend operates at multiple levels.