2012-08-17

Funcertainty

This is sort of a general gaming post, though it'll end up talking about EvE very specifically at the end, which is only fair since EvE is where this whole line of thought began.

A few days ago I was doing an interview with Anton Strout for the Once and Future Podcast and (because the 'cast is equal parts about writing and the rabid nerdity of the guests) Anton asked me when I first got my start with gaming.

For the sake of my own dignity, I won't get into hard numbers, but my answer involved the novelization of the movie E.T., and me begging my mom to buy me the pink DnD boxed set from the Sears catalog. It was a while back, is what I'm saying.

On the long march between then and now, I ran a lot of bad games, for which I will make few apologies, because at the time I don't think any of us realized they were bad games. Me and my high school gaming buddies (who dodged typical mid-eighties nerd hazing by also being most of the starting offensive line for the varsity football team) might have gotten the rules wrong as we stomped through Castle Ravenloft, but that didn't stop it from being a good time. Monsters were vanquished, horrors were driven from their places of power, and the village graveyard acquired more than a few fresh headstones in the process, each marble slab engraved with the name of a beloved player character (levels 3-5) who'd failed a save against poison, fear, or (most often) death.

Thing is, getting a rule wrong was never (directly) what made the game bad. After all, when you're talking about a game (any game) the only real qualifier for "bad" is "not fun." Misruling could lead to that, sure, but most of the time, a lack of fun came from two places:

  • Something social, outside the game itself.

  • The absence of uncertainty.


I'm not going to talk about the Social thing right now -- that's well-traveled ground. I do want to talk about that second thing.

Ask any gamer about the best moments they've had in their gaming, and you will usually hear a story about some nail-biting conflict.

My crazy barbarian decides to try to trip the dragon he and his allies are fighting, despite horrible odds -- and it worked.


My buddy's knight takes on an evil paladin wielding a sword that can kill him with a single unlucky hit, and the fight comes down to a mutually fatal roll of the dice.


Our team has to hold the western flank against the the advancing Imperial forces on Hoth to give the transports time to escape, then get away themselves... by stealing Vadar's shuttle.


Good times.

You know what no one's likely to mention?

"This one time, I walked into a room full of 50 goblins with crossbows, but my Armor Class was so good they couldn't hit me and I just used Great Cleave and killed all of them in like... two turns."


"I walked into this hook-and-chain trap that was supposed to do a bunch of damage to a group of people, but it was just me, so the damage for a whole group hit just me and basically turned me into a pile of giblets, instantly."


"We tried to talk the King into letting us do something, but we couldn't convince him, because the GM had something different planned." 1


I think you can see the core difference between those examples, but I point it out anyway.

Certainty.

In my opinion, certainty is the death of fun in most any game, and it may be one of the things that separate "games" from "sport" (where certainty of victory comes via skill and ability and lots of hard work, and is justifiably celebrated).

If you're on the winning side of things, certainty is boring. The classic example of that is the old "Monty Haul" campaign, where the GM is basically there to make sure you find all the treasure he put in the dungeon, and never have to feel the sting of defeat. Fun as a powertrip, maybe, for awhile, but ultimately coma-inducing.

If you're on the losing side of things, certainty is -- at best -- frustrating. When there's no chance at all of success, even the 'live to fight another day' kind, then you might as well check out of the whole thing now and save the time you'd otherwise waste on caring about the outcome.

Over many (many) years of gaming, I've managed to figure out (one situation at a time) when something I was doing was killing fun by making the results (good or bad) a foregone conclusion. (Sometimes this was a question of mechanics; sometimes it was a question of "the inviolate plot.") It also helped me identify what was going wrong when I wasn't having fun as a player, both at a table or online.

Slamming my head against the same raid boss over and over, when it's clear we don't have the right group or the proper gear to succeed? Not fun.

Fighting that same raid boss when we're this close to pulling off a win, and every attempt might go for us or the bad guys? Exhilarating.

Farming that boss once we have all the best gear, know the fight backwards and forwards, and all the surprises are gone? Boring.

Wandering around the newbie starter zone with my max-level character, picking flowers to level my Herbalism? Boring.

Sneaking through a zone 10 or 20 levels too high for me, running for my life in an effort to get a specific location or find a special macguffin? Fun!

Getting insta-killed out of nowhere when you unknowingly walk your new character into a high-level PvP zone? Frustrating.

I think we get the point. It's something to keep in mind when you're running or playing a game in which you have any kind of input (usually tabletop, but not always). Are you bored? Add challenge to what you're doing by changing the choices you make. Are you hopelessly frustrated by never-ending failures? Change things up, or take a break, right?

So let's talk about EvE
First, EvE PvE content -- from missions to mining to exploration -- is pretty terrible.

Now, maybe (probably) it doesn't seem terrible when you first start playing the game, because you don't know enough to realize how very (very) certain the outcome of any PvE mission content in the game really is; you don't know how much DPS you need to be able to tank to survive a mission, and even if you do, you may not know how (or simply be unable) to fit your ship in a way that will achieve that threshold. Your lack of knowledge provides the uncertainty that is not otherwise present. 2

Once you know much at all about the game, though, you start to see the reality of the situation. The groups are always exactly the same size. They always do pretty much exactly the same amount of damage. They always aggress the first person they see, they never switch their aggression to another person (unless the first one leaves). Once you have the situation worked out -- once you know how to approach it, it's about as challenging as your fiftieth game of Minesweeper.3 The 'best' PvE in the game (Sleepers and Incursions) injects a bare amount of uncertainty with randomly switching aggro, which is still pretty hopeless. Almost any other MMO you care to name (even those that predate EvE) have long since worked on more advanced combat AIs.

"But the PvP in EvE is so much better than everyone else: completely emergent, completely unpredictable, completely uncertain!"

Maybe.

Yes, a big part of the draw in EvE is the PvP (whether it's PvP with bullets, tactics, or the infamous metagaming). Even if you don't personally seek out PvP, it's still a factor in your play, because once you undock, someone else can shoot you. They might choose not too because of the potential consequences, but they always have that option. Always. There isn't a one hundred percent safe, PvP-free zone anywhere in space. (Hell, for that matter, you're not entirely safe from PvP even if you never undock and just work the market all day -- Market PvP is a very real thing in EvE, but I digress.)

For as long as there has been PvP in EvE, there have been people bitching about the PvP. A lot of that kvetching and moaning (on both sides of every subject) has do with mechanics like ECM or the ever-present accusations that this or that tactic or practice is "dishonorable", "ruins the game", or removes any chance of a "good fight."

Dishonorable. What a word! Simultaneously loaded with drama and completely meaningless in any debate involving more than one person. :P

You can kind of sort out what most of the people using the term intend when they say it, though.

"Your actions have removed all questions of skill, choice, and your opponent's actions from the equation, ensuring your victory."

Put another way.

"You have removed all uncertainty."

Put another way.

"You've taken everything that makes a game fun out of this situation."

Now, that's a comment that's likely going to earn you a lock of mockery in EvE (which is why no one says it that way). The leader of one of the biggest groups the game is famously quoted as saying "We're not trying to ruin the game, we're trying to ruin your game." Tell those guys that they're taking away the elements of the game that make it fun for other people, and they'd probably exchange high-fives and another round of Jagerbombs.

But let's ignore the walking embodiment of the John Gabriel's Greater Internet Dickwad Theory for a moment, and just look at the basics here.

EvE is a game.

A game's primary purpose is to provide fun.

Fun in a game (unlike fun in sport) arises from a sense of uncertainty.

Removing uncertainty removes fun.

What's the kind of stuff that removes that uncertainty?

  1. Overwhelming force.


Actually? I can stop there. There are lots of ways in which "overwhelming force" is expressed in the game (attacking a group of 5 with a group of 20 (if only: 1 vs 100 is just as common), shipping up, a impenetrable wall of ECM, logistics support for a 'casual roam', et cetera, et cetera), and pretty much all of it takes place in the game with the specific goal of ensuring victory.

Is that a bad thing? No, not if the goal is winning, which is a goal I completely understand. EvE is a costly game in terms of time and resources -- when you lose, you really lose stuff, so people often forget (or forego) "what would be fun" in favor of whatever the best way is to mitigate risk.



I'm not going to say that this is bad for the game. In a lot of ways, it's what makes EvE what it is, and I like what it is.

However.

If you find yourself frustrated by the game, may I suggest taking a step back and looking at your current style of play.

Is it possible that the reason that you're not having much fun is simply because you've methodically removed the elements that make a game fun?

Uncertainty is fun.

Uncertainty comes from risk.

As an experiment:

  • Distance yourself in some way from groups that treat ship losses an inherently bad thing.

  • Release your death grip on "Killboard Efficiency."

  • If fights are always boring, maybe bring fewer people. Or leave the ECM or the off-grid boosting alts (or both) at home.

  • Take a fight when the outcome isn't clear.


It's hard to do.

It's hard to do even when it's just you -- it's even harder when you're making decisions for a whole group of people.

Going back to my tabletop roots, it's damned hard as the GM to take the plunge and start rolling all the dice out in the open and letting things go on without that safety net of secretly fudging a potentially fatal roll. I mean, OMG: what if your dice get hot and you kill the dude one of your guys has been playing for two years?

Similarly, what if your decision costs your fleetmate his 2 billion isk strategic cruiser?

Most people don't know what would happen, because they don't have the guts to risk it.

But what a story they'd have if they did.




1 - This is, incidentally, why I prefer to roll dice to determine the outcome of social conflicts, rather than let "pure role-playing" determine the outcome. No matter how mature or unbiased we claim to be, that sort of 'system' is one highly susceptible to out-of-game social maneuvering of various kinds, the least harmful of which is the simple fact that if you know the GM well enough, you know exactly what argument will convince them to let you win. It's the same reason I don't like playing Apples to Apples with my best friends anymore -- there's absolutely no challenge to it; we know each other too well. Roll the dice, and enjoy the fact that the outcome may not be what you expected.

2 - This is what I call the Chutes and Ladders syndrome: Chutes and Ladders is a terrible, boring game... unless you're too young too realize it's terrible, at which point you probably think it's the Best Game Ever.

3 - Mining is even worse. Barring the possibility of being jumped by a random player (which isn't part of the mining system itself), there is no variation at all: ask any serious miner how much he can mine in an hour, and he will be able to give you an answer down to the second decimal point for every type of ore available. I don't know what 'injecting uncertainty' into the baseline mining experience looks like, but it's what needs to happen to make it suck less.
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