The Bane of Innovation: Gamers

I’m finding it hard to write this post without sounding like I’m bragging.  So let me just get it out of the way: I do indeed  think I’m pretty awesome, and I do happen to know that I’m pretty damn smart.  Moving on.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the lack of innovation in many of the recent major MMO releases.  I certainly do not doubt that pressure comes from the investors — I suspect many venture capitalists have never played the successful MMOs they desire to emulate, but they are likely familiar with them.  And I find it possible that they make the mistake of equating “hasn’t been done” or “hasn’t been done successfully” with “shouldn’t be done” or the even worse “can’t be done.”

But I don’t think we can place the blame entirely on these theoretical spoilsports.  I think we can place just as much blame on the inability of many gamers to stretch their thinking, on a tendency to simply assume something couldn’t or shouldn’t be done and then to insist that their feeling is universally true.  There seems to be a number of gamers that simply lack imagination.

Even as I write that, I find it an odd feeling, especially given recent research that shows a correlation between young gamers and creativity (pick an article, any article).  Then again, maybe creativity and imagination aren’t words describing the exact same thing.  I can conceive a person who can write very creative fan fiction about Jedis and Sith yet cannot create an original universe from scratch.  Perhaps innovation requires both of these traits.  Or perhaps I’m way off — but my purpose here is not to nitpick over words.

But I keep encountering gamers who get their minds in ruts and then assert that rut is all there can be, while speaking in absolutes such as “never” and “always.”   There’s only one absolute that I find absolutely true: absolutes are never true.

And here’s where the “I’m so awesome” part comes into play.  For example, with the upcoming changes to housing in Glitch, I’ve pointed out in a number of places, including this blog, that one of the major issues with housing is that it is linked to particular physical locations.  And while I actually like that, it causes some issues for the devs.  Locations and styles sell out, forcing the devs to pay attention and add more, and causing irritation among players who feel as if they are settling for second best when they didn’t get that house in region whatever with all their friends.   But I keep running into players saying things like: “I’m sure even if we can’t keep our current house, we’ll be able to keep our address.”  At first, I sort of dismissed these comments as likely only coming from people who were quite satisfied with their current location, but eventually I started also noting people that did not want to keep their current address and were worried that others would not be forced to move and as a result, the regions they prefer would not open up.

These realizations guided me into a *facepalm* moment.  Was it not apparent to everyone else that the fixed addresses were clearly part of the problem of the current system so that any system they might imagine with a fixed address was just not thinking big enough?  Am I really that much smarter and awesomer that what I perceive as obvious might be a stretch to everyone else?

Probably not.  But what I am willing to do is to throw everything I already know about a system off the table and start over.  And it turns out I’m right — this thought is no longer speculative but verified by the big man himself.

I don’t actually think I’m that much smarter (though I am probably awesomer, deal with it), but I think this was a clear example of gamers in a rut assuming that rut was the only option.  Glitch houses have street addresses, and Glitch houses have always had street addresses.  Glitch housing blocks are accessed from the main world of Glitch and always have been.  The idea that these basic characteristics might change never occurred to them.  They never analyzed the assumptions that created the walls of that rut though they did attempt to be creative within the confines of those walls.

As another example, a recent Daily Grind column on Massively touched briefly on the idea of permadeath.  Many commenters immediately jumped in with the absolutes, making statements such as “permadeath could never be fun,” “no game could ever be interesting with permadeath,” etc. etc.  But again, I find these statements to be failures to examine their assumptions about MMOs.  I imagine these conclusions result from consciously or unconsciously asking “How would I feel if my character in [WoW/SWTOR/Eve/any current game] was permanently deleted when he died?”   And I think that they’re right to answer that question to themselves by assuming it would be terrible and that it would ruin the game.  Especially with current theme park offerings, the only thing that playing the game changes is the actual character, so a loss of that character would be the same as never playing.

Instead, with the permadeath issue, I think the question should be: “What set of circumstances could I imagine in which permadeath would be fun or add to the experience.”  And when I ask myself that question, with the basic assumption that it would be possible, I do find answers.

I can see it working as a control on ganking in an open PvP game: imagine an Eve in which killing players in low sec or suicide ganking in high sec not only leads to a low security clearance, but eventually leads to being denied cloning facilities.  Most players would have no fear of permadeath, but pirates would be knowingly choosing that risk.  And then there would be a built-in punishment for (unsuccessful) piracy, and a huge deterrent to suicide ganking.  I wouldn’t place this into Eve as is, but I can imagine an Eve-like game launching with this feature and being incredibly praise-worthy for trying it.  I imagine it would even expand the audience of the game — carebears (a group I am often a member of) and the not-so-hardcore PvPers might find such a mechanic more attractive than the (nearly) anything goes world of Eve or Darkfall.

I also think this could be an interesting mechanic in any game where characters’ actions have lasting effects on the game world rather than only on the character himself.  I can imagine a game where I can build a house, work the land, and fight off wild animals.  In that same game, I can imagine wooing a virtual spouse and having virtual children, then growing old and dying.  One of my children could be my heir, and my new controlled character, and the rest could filter into an NPC town and serve as potential virtual spouses for other players.  Something along these lines might be the reason why permadeath is going to be a launch feature of Salem — what you do with the world around you may very well be more interesting than the character you do it with.

Perhaps investors are behind the drive to produce more of the same under a different title.  But if they are paying attention to the things gamers say about games, to the questions gamers ask themselves when faced with an innovative concept, I can’t really blame them.  Clearly, gamers often fail to ask themselves how a game could be built around an odd or “hated” mechanic, and instead only ask themselves what that mechanic would feel like in the games they are already familiar with.

The former question is often fascinating to ponder; the latter question is quite often useless.

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6 responses to “The Bane of Innovation: Gamers

  1. Interesting things to think about! I’m not much of a “gamer” per se (Glitch is all I play), but I could see how using your imagination could make a huge difference in an experience, rather than thinking in those limited terms that you already know.

  2. I’ve had my share of head-desk moments myself over just this sort of thing; even genre veterans, with many more years logged than I, have a hard time thinking outside of the box. Then again, I’m finding more and more that I seem to enjoy the idea of virtual worlds, their design, and so forth, more than I do playing in them (I’m not sure if that says more about me, or the current crop of games, but it is what it is). Permadeath is a perennial favorite, and I’ve spent many an hour mulling over potential games that might incorporate it in a compelling way.

    • I can’t say that I blame you — I’m more likely to blame the current crop of games.

      Eve isn’t for everyone. Darkfall has a lot of potential but needs a lot of work, in my opinion. SWG, as far as I’m concerned, closed years ago. And I’m not all that familiar with other sandbox offerings.

      My love of virtual worlds has me really into Glitch, but that’s not for everyone either — it’s a lighthearted, goofy virtual world with no combat.

      I just keep my fingers crossed that some developer will eventually realize that the way to retain players is to create a true “Everquest” — not a game modeled after EQ, but a game that doesn’t end, where max level and best-in-slot have no meaning, where there are too many long-term goals to do them all, and even as you’re working on one you’re thinking about the next one.

  3. What set of circumstances could I imagine in which permadeath would be fun or add to the experience
    PRECISELY. It’s hard for anyone to imagine anything outside of present implementations (evidenced by recent blogosphere topics: http://www.mmomeltingpot.com/2012/01/lols-we-all-just-dps-as-game-design-bioware-pr-concerns-and-huge-as-a-story-element/).
    No given mechanic is bad or good, existing in a vacuum. Any mechanic can be very much made fun if it were designed as an integral piece to a cohesive whole.

    Interesting blog. Just happened across you. Will return!

  4. Pingback: It’s Friday somewhere, I guess, in some dimension | Gaming with Sauce

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