Design Complexity vs. Behavioral Complexity

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Joined: 13 May 2005
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Location: Alberta, Canada

PostPosted: Sat Aug 21, 2010 1:52 am    Post subject: Design Complexity vs. Behavioral Complexity Reply with quote

When I played through Dragon Age the first time, I had a blast. I played a rogue ‘Robin hood’ type of character. Through the game, I began adding mages into my party and thought ‘wow, this is so completely different. I want to try playing the game through again with a mage main character’.

So I did; I made a self-serving caster type person and tried to play the game through this way. After getting about half way through the game the second time, I got bored. My main character had gained enough skills that she was effectively identical to the mages in my previous party. The story line didn’t unravel particularly differently either, except for a couple small changes like unlocking the evil ‘reaver’ warrior subclass because of how I handled a particular quest.

I played WoW for many years, primarily as a Rogue. Every so often I’d get the itch to try a different class, and so I’ll roll up a new character. My usual experience was that is was very fun. Each class has a unique feel to it. I always had a blast up until level 40 or so, where you had enough diversity in your skill set that you could pretty much kill any monster following the exact same procedure in every case. Sure, I could respec if I wanted a change of pace, but after awhile that began costing lots of money. Furthermore, after every respec it was evident after a day or so that I could just follow a rote procedure for killing everything. It may be a different rote procedure from my other builds, but compared to my last kill, I was going to be doing the exact same thing for my next kill.

MUDs are just as bad, if not worse for these sorts of problems. I see muds advertising bazillions of races, even more classes, and a game world so big you’ll never see it all! This comes with the implication that all of this variety somehow expands your options for playing the game. Often, it does not. Races do not play fundamentally different from one to the other, and if they do the game typically does not have enough replay value to explore all of the variations. Classes are often just minor variations from one to another, and when there are large behavioral differences between classes, the problem I had in WoW still crops its head: eventually you get to a point where your skillset is diverse enough that you can pick out your best skills, apply them in a rote fashion, and basically kill everything the same way. The game turns into a grind at this point.

I think one of the problems plaguing game developers (MMO and MUD developers specifically) is they assume there is a transparent mapping between structural complexity and behavioral complexity. If I have X classes, that means my game supports X unique ways to play it. Add in Y races, and now there’s X*Y ways. Throw in Z levels and suddenly we have X*Y*Z detailed variations to this game.

Even if through miraculously good (or lucky) design your game’s structural complexity reflects its behavioral complexity, most characters are not allowed to change their class, race, or go back in level, so they approach this narrowing window where when they hit top level, and the game is basically ‘the same’ for the rest of time.

It’s at this point that most players will start an alternate character. Most of the times there’s barriers to doing this, like all of your friends are higher level and don’t want to start another character yet, or all of the ‘interesting’ gameplay happens at max level, and it’s a burden to have to grind up another character. If for whatever reason you don’t get stopped by these barriers, it’s usually not long before you get your character to a power great enough that he can kill everything with ease, and then you realize you’re basically doing the same thing your other character was doing – killing everything without remorse – just with different buttons.

So how do you create a behaviorally rich game? Here’s a few ideas I apply to my own mud’s design.

Easy re-classing. If you have 7542 classes, each with their own unique style of play, allow players to easily experience this. Let them change classes fairly easily. In my game, I accomplish this by having a classless system; instead, players pick 10-30 skills from about 300, and make their own class. Players can rechoose their skills any time they go to town.

Alternatively or additionally, reduce the barrier to entry to getting to the ‘fun’ content for new characters (i.e., endgame). In my game, players reach ‘endgame’ after about 3 hours of playing. The difference in power between a freshly made character and one that’s been playing for 3 years is about a 50% power increase. Instead, advancement in my game revolves around unlocking new options for character customization.

Less options often means more diversity of behavior when designing a class. This is kind of counter-intuitive. Here’s an example. When I played WoW, the funnest part of a new character for me was often the 20-25 range. This was the point where you had juuuust enough skills that you were competent, but there wasn’t yet enough synergy between your skills to follow rote rules for killing stuff. Often, I have to exploit terrain, kiting things as a ranged class, paying close attention to health and mana, planning cooldown use so they were as efficient as possible. When I got to levels 40-50, my skills were diverse enough that large synergies began to emerge between small sets of skills, and I could effectively use those skills in a rote fashion against any monster and kill it.

This problem can probably be generalized to the issue that, as players gain power, there comes a point where the likelihood of a monster dying before you is so high that you can always choose the exact same set of buttons to press in the exact same order, and win every time.

The model of hit points and action points (mana) has been relatively static throughout the years. If you are playing your character well, you have enough of both to survive maybe 5-10 fights without a break, then you take a rest for them to recharge, and repeat. Of course this means even if you are playing poorly you can usually get away with doing stupid stuff and still win a fight. What you do doesn’t really determine the outcome of the fight. So there’s little motivation to do different things in different contexts.

What I’ve done on in my mud is make it so that players have approximately enough health for one fight. Action points regenerate at 10% per second, so players are really only limited by how fast they can spend action points, rather than how many they have. After combat is over, players’ health regenerates back up to full in seconds rather than minutes. What this allows me to do is make the average fight much harder. If a player is just face rolling their keyboard, they’ll probably die. If players are not exploiting the idiosyncrasies of each monster, they will probably die. Players are forced to adapt their behavior from fight to fight to win, instead of just pressing the same buttons in the same sequence each time. I get the richness of behavior that I want by forcing each fight to be a challenge.

These solutions to the problem of creating a game that supports – and forces – players to adapt a rich set of behaviors, of course, come with their own problems. But they are problems I am more willing to deal with than players getting bored after so much time because the game is just a grind.

One of the unique problems I have faced comes from the fact that players really only have enough health for 1 fight. Players encounter many more deaths on my mud than you’d typically see on another mud. Death is often an expected outcome of playing. Of course, this means death has to be designed to not carry as much of a penalty or interrupt the flow of the game.
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Joined: 20 Mar 2010
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Location: Tempe, AZ

PostPosted: Mon Aug 23, 2010 4:34 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think one reason for all the games with 25+ races and class combinations is that a lot MUD developers subscribe to the adage, "Variety is the spice of life." The problem, however, is that their form of 'variety' is usually quite cosmetic -- and while I might agonize over choosing which really cool-looking race to pick in a graphical game, in a MUD, "cosmetics" loses its appeal quickly.

( The only time when this might not be the case is in roleplaying, but if you are playing a game for PvP or achievement-play, many players just pay attention to the numbers more than they do to racial/class theme. )

There's another thread here (Levelling: a psychological urge?) that touches on players recognizing patterns and then pursuing them until they get bored. This is the plague to MMO and MUD games, because, no matter how many thousands of rooms, mobs, classes, and races you have, gameplay is essentially the same and there are few challenges that can be completed by a human that could not also be completed by a bot.

I, personally, usually burn out on games after I've played 2 or 3 characters, because the challenges are always the same. It's as you described, you learn a class, get to a point where you can defeat everything using only certain move patterns, and then move on - and the sad thing is, different races and classes are often times nothing more than just different skills/spells that cause slightly different effects, and execution is almost always the same (point-and-click for MMOs, or alias'd [cast x dude] for MUDs).

I have yet to see a MUD (or MMO, for that matter) that can deliver truly unique game-play based on how you begin the game.

While not the best example in the world, I am drawn to the shooter Left4Dead because my choice (or lack thereof) to play either a zombie or human survivor dictates some drastically different goals and game-play -- the game itself even looks completely different. For example, playing a human is a ...well, I'm going to call it a linear learning experience... because you stay the same character throughout a campaign. Your fighting style is range-based and dependent on inventory/ammunition types, and level progression requires completing different sets of challenges and finding your way through areas. As a zombie, however, you are constantly having to exercise different strategies to "get the humans" because you are not able to choose your type each time you die/rezz and the pace/urgency of your goals is dynamically set by the skill and progress of your human enemies.
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Location: Southern Hellinois

PostPosted: Mon Aug 23, 2010 2:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Fairly depressing topic, but one that I agree with.

Industrialized gaming, what we are force fed now days to be gaming, at least that's what I call it. Gaming is a ritual without a ritual now days. Games like Wow, that used to be fun, but everything was cool was nerfed into nothingness, and what were left with is a really fancy cake that tastes like motorboat fuel. Whats left is a lot of people who feel they deserve more, or moar, from the internet adage.

Games which have an end, but its the same end, its just over. When we are done, we just walk away. We may spend 30-50-75$ for an experience which lasts, what, 2-3 days, tops. When it is over, what did we get out of it, what did we learn, what do we take with us to the next game.

I have the sad fact to have played games in the hey day, before the great industrialization of gaming, back when castle wolfenstein and smurfenstein on the apple were where it was at. Spending all night downloading a wad for doom from a bbs at 2400 baud. Spending an hour making sure my map was just right in bards tale; then finding out my map was wrong, and I read a clue wrong, and I would die, and do it over again.

Fast forward 20 years. Civ 4 comes to mind. You, the human, play against bots in a match. The only difference, is the settings, which ramp up in difficulty, making the bots have an easier time with their scripts, while you fight, grudgingly behind them trying to keep up. Its supposed to be fun right? right? At least so I tell myself.

I reached the point, a month or more ago, where I actually got fed up with the whole notion of gaming like this. Its not fun. I went back to everything that had been fun, and it simply wasn't. the gamer devs had changed everything to the point where it was barely even recognizable as what I had remembered it to have been, and yes it was merely my perception that changed, but more so, it wasn't any fun what so ever.

I cant walk into a game store any more, and say to myself, hey, this looks cool, or this is original. They aren't original. They aren't cool. Its made to force feed destruction and challenge to some kids in a suburb some where who want to be that way, but I myself, dont, not any more.

I look through my hard drive, at the variety of games I still have installed, and sigh, and close the window out. I don't un-install them, simply as a reminder to me about what actually disgusts me any more.

None of the worlds they make are harsh. None of them are challenging,
truly challenging, about survival, let alone making it to the top. They don't have death penalties, just re-spawn and move along.

I remembered a happier time in my life, which evolved around an evolving mud. and I went back to it. I found a bit more of my self that I had lost
somewhere along the line.

what turns me on, isn't the death penalties, or the races, its the people who enjoy simple things. I went back to coding, and I haven't been happier. And now I watch the 3-4 people who I have hooked, and they are having fun, trying desperately to explore and not to perish.

Muds are a good thing, or can be, a far better thing then paying to game.

Maybe I just reached a deeper depth of my jaded self. I am fine by that, but, my real question, is for how long until this solace is vacated. That, I am unsure of.

~Kell the Kyuss
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