Monday, July 30, 2012

Minds of their Own


Blog Banter 38: Dogma

In his recent "That's just the way it is" post on Jester's Trek, blogger Ripard Teg posits that the established EVE player-base has come to accept many of EVE's design idiosyncrasies, rarely questioning their purpose or benefit. Conversely, he also suggests that new players might not be so forgiving of these "quirks". In an interview with Gamasutra, Senior Producer CCP Unifex describes EVE Online's developers as "relatively hands-off janitors of the virtual world", underlining that he has only four content developers but "a lot" of programmers and engineers.

Has a culture developed where CCP has started to take player effort for granted - expecting the "social engine" to fulfil tasks that might otherwise be CCP's responsibility? Or should this culture be embraced as part of "emergent gameplay" with these quirks accepted as the catalyst for interaction?

SimCity is a fascinating series. In case you've been living under a rock for the past two decades, its a game that provides you with an empty territory and a series of tools in which to design a city. But the catch is that the AIs that live in the city don't necessarily do what you want them to do, or the things they do have unexpected consequences.

For example, you lay out a residential zone and a commercial zone and an industrial zone... but no one builds anything. Then you remember to add electricity from a power plant to the zones and construction starts. Excellent, you think. But the commercial zone is only partly used and the industrial zone is overflowing, and traffic congestion between the residential area and industrial zone is practically gridlock. So you add more roads. Now the people want water so you add some water mains and pumps to fill them. Now they demand more industrial space... and a dump. And city ordinances and police and fire stations. But you are running low on money... so you raise taxes... and watch as your industrial park becomes an industrial wasteland as businesses up and leave for more tax friendly cities. Its a delicate balancing acts to service the needs and demands of the residents, businesses, and environment over the lifetime of your city. Get everything running smoothly and then you can slowly add more to your growing city, constantly throwing the balance out of whack and dancing around the controls to get it smooth again. God help you if a disaster strikes or you forget to leave funds to replace your aging water and power infrastructure.

What's this got to do with EVE?

Running an MMO is a lot like playing a big game of SimCity. You've got to lay down the infrastructure that attracts the players to live in your MMO world, you've got to balance their demands with the future growth of the game, and if you mess up and make them too unhappy they will start to leave your game for somewhere else.

Players are a lot more inventive and random than an AI pretending to be a bunch of Sim-citizens are, so in an MMO the developers can provide tools to the players to allow them to create some of the sandbox content that other players can partake in (sometimes unwillingly!). This is writ large in EVE where one could argue that the majority of content is the result of players.

So with that basis described, let's go back to the question posed in this blog banter:
Has a culture developed where CCP has started to take player effort for granted - expecting the "social engine" to fulfil tasks that might otherwise be CCP's responsibility? Or should this culture be embraced as part of "emergent gameplay" with these quirks accepted as the catalyst for interaction?
To be clear, there is actually two questions in there. One, has CCP taken player generated content for granted, and two, should these game "quirks" be considered as part of the player generated content interaction?

My answers:

1) Yes, CCP has come to take player actions that generate content a bit granted, but I don't necessarily feel its a bad thing. For one thing, the hands-off approach does allow players the freedom to take the game interactions in new and interesting ways that could be quickly stifled by developer actions in the same areas. For example, if CCP created two NPC high sec corps in constant war with each other, that could effectively draw off the potential playerbase for Red Versus Blue. Without the ability to control those corps, the resulting developer corporation could be less vibrant and dynamic.

There are areas where I think some developer action could stimulate some much needed player activity, such as more spontaneous live events and role playing activities.

2) No, these quirks should not just be accepted and left alone. I'm in total agreement with Ripard Teg on this one: that crap should be fixed because quality of life is a big bugbear for me. The less frustrated I am with the game's interface and controls, the more fun I have over all. The Directional Scanner interface is a huge issue for me because it could be made so much better and enjoyable to use without making it too easy. As for these quirks being interaction points with new players, I call bullshit. The game has zillions of interaction points to act as catalysts between veterans and new players, we don't need pain points to act as them.

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