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Nov 19, 2008



This is a long post, Tim.

Two short points.

1. Much of this strikes me as reasoning by analogy, and if our analogies of how things work, now matter how seemingly logical or appropriate or insightful, simply, for reasons we do not fully understand, DO NOT APPLY, then we are in a pickle. I have begun to think that much of our human-brain-compatible analogies about how the very distant and the very strange parts of the world (micro-quantum-level/macro-social-level) work place us in some uncomfortable pickles.

2. There's a big mmo design problem in here, concerning how to retain customers over time (the mundane slant) and, simultaneously, concerning how to maintain and sustain novelty and "fun" in general (the more esoteric slant). In addition to your reference to SWG and WAR, I recommend taking a look at the current pvp 2.0 rules impositions happening over at City of Heroes, which are placing current CoH/V players in medias res.

3. And a third point, I guess. If we look to nature for our answer: extinction.


O, and great review of Spore btw.

Dont think I said that earlier.


Oh. Yeah not really a fan of RPGs anyway.


I like this train of thought. Where it pertains to MMOs, I personally feel that this "adding complexity to conceal the inner workings of the system" is the equivalent of a new coat of paint on a stress fracture. Not to say that this doesn't happen all to often in MMOs. Essentially the MMORPG experience is a simulation of sorts, my character's stats versus another character or NPC with a little bit of interaction. All of the intricacies of character development, items, and abilities, along with the way these things affect each-other; this is the designer painting over the fact there simply is not enough interaction, no truly satisfying core mechanic. In games, knowing how the system works is integral to the player, and the fewer rules the better. Those rules simply have to allow for the maximum amount of diversity in order to provide an enjoyable experience. We all know that a few simple rules can create wonderful complexity, but the unspoken reverse is that too many rules reduce player choice and create the enigma problem.


So is the solution to go with simpler and possibly less interesting systems or head more in the direction of simulation? I don't believe the market will accept simple systems as they cannot hold interest long enough to make subscription based revenue viable.

Going more the simulationist route comes with it's own pitfalls though. The codebase would be maintainable but our control over its behavior would be significantly weakened. We would have to forgo much of the central planning and carefully managed player experience approach we take today and embrace the emergent behavior that would inevitably appear.


Warhammer's zone control scheme is certainly overly complex. Its also vulnerable to the other faction boycotting PVP once they start to lose. So what happens is players spend all this time getting close to a zone lock, and then they watch Victory Point decay reverse all their progress once the other side stops coming out to fight. Mythic needs to simply their zone control mechanic, and make owning keeps/bfo's the central part of owning a zone.

Their crafting system is also dependent on other players. So as the population declines people have to roll ALT's who have complimentary gathering or crafting skills so they can make something.

Warhammer is a good game, but certainly needs tweaking.


For whatever reason, it took me awhile to get around to reading / commenting on this one, but it is really interesting. Thanks for cross-posting it here.

I think you and Dave have some important things in common, Tim, in that you both have a tendency to focus on the logic of the system -- either the game system as designed or the human agent as she interprets and acts within that design. There's a flavor of formalism here that makes me a little concerned about the limits of the discussion -- it seems to me that you're both often fond of reading the virtual world a puzzle or a text rather than as a tool used for various purposes by various players.

But putting that aside, I'll stick with the "designer as author" perspective, since that's where this problem of baroque complexity seems to arise.

As an initial matter, it seems to me that it is a common problem for any good puzzle, right? The jigsaw puzzle can have ten pieces or a thousand pieces, leading to a certain trajectory of play -- the simple puzzle is completed too quickly. The puzzle with 100,000 pieces never sells because no one would want to put it together. (10,000 seems okay, though.) So people express a preference for things with *limited* opacity.

But part of the problem with the MMORPG, at least with a PvP/RvR world like CoH or WAR, is that you have multiple players trying to assemble the jigsaw puzzle in tandem. If the fastest actors get a lock on the solution, the game becomes less interesting for both those who solved it and those who must compete against them. (See Dave's problem with droning in CoH.)

The answer, I think, would be to let the puzzle's solution change. If the ground conditions vary with each day, the dominant strategies may change as well. Move the flag around the field, pick some pieces off the board, let it snow, etc. In fact, I think, ideally, this is what you'd find in a PvP game that works well -- I hear (from Nate) that Eve has some of this strategic depth.

But I suspect that you might not like that because it would be incompatible with your focus on initial design that leads to emergent complexity. If the players are the solution, the logic of the game is no longer the central matter. (See again, Dave's problem in CoH, where the dominant solution is "legal" but not interesting to the players.) If the work becomes a serial, on the other hand, we're not dealing with a fixed text any longer.

But really, I don't see any other clean solution to the problem as you present it -- if it is a puzzle intentionally designed to pleasurably impede the player, the player must be able to solve the puzzle and overcome the impediment. And then, if that's all you're concerned about, the game is over.


That's funny, Greg, I don't read what Tim was saying as hewing toward a game as puzzle or other set form stance at all. That is, I don't see how what he's saying disallows your suggestion that in part the actions of the players transform the game. My read is that instead Tim's granting that players can themselves transform what the game is about over time, and that in fact that designers are granting that, too. The difficulty for them is that in trying not only to live with that but also leverage it, they get themselves into some pretty challenging spots. Their contrived (baroque) complexity is an attempt to govern in an open-ended fashion, prompting but not determining how the game develops. For those questions, attention to the "logic" of the system is apt, but it does not lock us into thinking of it as a puzzle.


You have diarrhea of the blog, big time.


OK, so I re-read it and here goes.

I agree that Tim is referring to two kinds of complexity -- 1) "Accidental drift towards a system where no one really understands how cause and effect work within the system happens in institutional life all the time." and 2) "Rube-Goldberg complexity-by-design". In my reading he seems to focus primarily on the latter and he associates it with virtual worlds.

With regard to the latter -- while what he suggests designers are creating is not exactly a puzzle (since he suggest that designers don't fullly know what the design at times), he suggests it does result in a largely static game structure. This seems to follow from his suggestion that complexity creates problems because those who master the complexity have investments in it and seek to entrench it.

But he suggests that part of the driver for more elaborate complexity is that: "Once players understand exactly what it is that they must do, how they must do it, and when they must do it, they are likely to find competition to be boring and repetitive." While he suggests that "baroque complexity" is an attempt to deal with this problem, I see this as very similar to his criticism of where baroque complexity leads -- to something static and unsatisfying, a broken system.

The system is only open-ended insofar as it allows for some unanticipated results. However, given that the unanticipated results lead to what I guess might be called a "bureaucratic" style of "broken" game play, which can be attributed to origin design principles and "fixed" only by a new platform, I do see this as being, at least in part, a criticism of the shortcomings of the developer as author, which might be cured (or re-framed) by making the role of the players more central.

Maybe I need to read it a third time? :-)


Lol, no that squares pretty well with my reading now. :-)

I guess I would add that it seems from your re-framing that we have two forces that to a certain extent come to work against the open-endedness of virtual worlds. One is the designers' desire for control and predictability. Not wanting their creation to spin out of their own control, they have an incentive to try to contrive a system that is complex enough to provide contingent and engaging experience (as opposed to boring routine), but "shallow" enough in its open-endedness that it doesn't spin out of control. The second force is the accumulation of interests on the part of *some* players and groups of players (institutions, let say) within the virtual world at hand (using "within" loosely). They come also to be invested in the status quo (this leads directly to Weberian/Foucauldian ideas).

So while routinized, "solved" gameplay runs the risk of being unengaging, it may suit the interests of both the designers and in-game vested interests. Or, at least, that would be the way I would read some of the really interesting implications here.


I am moved to say that "open-endedness" and "emergence" and such have begun to take on this fairy-tale quality connected to pots of gold and rainbows and lights at the end of the tunnel.

Im thinking maybe an essay to be written is "The Death of the Game" in which game rules and game goals recede into blogs about economics and 3D catgurls.

In the olden days, you either proved it, proved it couldn't be proved, or said we gotta work on that some more. And you preferred more of the former than more of the latter.

Nowadays, we seem to prefer more of the latter. Maybe it's because it's easier to not understand something than to understand it. And, of course, not understanding something has never prevented you from making money on it. Sometimes it seems to help.


As a game designer who is working on a game with systems that gain a complexity that is impossible to understand even to the designer, I wish to add some thoughts here.

In most cases, the designer doesn't need to understand the exact workings of the system. He doesn't need to be able to predict the exact effect of a change. What he needs to know is what things move which effects into what direction. The rest is tampering, polishing, and re-tampering until you get it right. This is a normal process and it's perfectly fine to do it like this.

Secondly, from a game design perspective, those systems that the player needs to interact with directly (such as the attacking a city example in WAR) should in my opinion always be transparent. Complex systems should evolve through the interaction of several transparent systems. If a key game loop that the player has to interact with is too complex to understand, then this in bad game design in my opinion.

In the end, it's not complexity that matters, but whether it is transparent to the player what effects his actions will have on the immediate system that he is dealing with.

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