Friday, October 2, 2009

Redefining MMOs: co-operation and GNS theory

I remember posting a short review of Fallen Earth on it's forums and receiving around 65 replies and a thousand or more views. Some commented on it like it was an essay, and I thought if I wrote something more academic, they would be certain to love me for it. Of course, no one read it or, if they did, didn't care for it. Luckily there is a gaming website dedicated to MMO's and they've been kind enough to let the average person weigh in on where the genre is headed - a link to that page can be found here. Since I assume you are reading this directly from that website and no where else at present, I'll end this obligatory introduction with my username: abadcoverband.


In this essay I will begin by addressing some issues of relative realism concerning Fallen Earth, and show that the result of pure simulationism is antithetical to other game types. This extends to players and their behaviour toward each other as well, mirroring defensive positions of thought and activity in the real world. Second, that limitations were put in place to appeal to players who enjoy a mix of gaming types, and that this is a good thing and not to be used as a means of contention or insult towards one another. Lastly, I propose a hypothesis that suggests adjusting the pricing scheme of an MMO will further stimulate co-operation and compassionate behaviour, as the chief point of contention (being initial monetary investment) is removed.

If Fallen Earth were entirely realistic, weapons would jam. Crafting a shirt would take far longer than 8 minutes, and you could not explore, do quests, or enter combat during the crafting process. You would have to eat and drink food that was not irradiated. If you had to eat the irradiated food, you would have to constantly contend with sickness and disease. You would not be able to withstand several bullets or knife wounds from another person without serious side effects, taking days or weeks to recover from. You would not regenerate your health (or, if mutated, the health would regenerate to some degree of side-effect). A bandage will not help a punctured lung, etc.

In pen and paper games, it was quickly found that a balance between reality and game 'fiction' had to be struck. It also helped minimize the amount of math and dice rolls that needed to be checked. Take for example this damage formula for blades, bows, and blunt weapons from Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion:

WeaponDamage = BaseWeaponDamage * fDamageWeaponMult *
( fDamageStrengthBase + Attribute/100 * fDamageStrengthMult ) *
( fDamageSkillBase + ModifiedSkill/100 * fDamageSkillMult ) *
( fDamageWeaponConditionBase + WeaponHealth/BaseWeaponHealth * fDamageWeaponConditionMult )

You may notice that several different things are being checked, from the quality of the weapon to the skill and attributes of the player. A computer game has the advantage in that it can calculate more than a person without slowing gameplay. Pen and paper checks, by contrast, often ignore weapon stability or if the weapon is rusty or if the player is fatigued, and focuses on a simple formula of base damage plus weapon modifier or simplified checks that accelerate gameplay by minimizing calculations a player must make to continue playing.

Fallen Earth could very well add in formulae that check a player's daily fatigue, say, the amount of activity versus rest a player has, and how that will affect their ability to communicate with other players, merchants, etc, not to mention effectiveness in combat and overall efficiency. The game could implement a code that randomly assesses the player's main weapon to make a check based on weapon condition/player fatigue to determine if it jams, and how often it jams. Encumbrance could be calculated to realistically depict the amount of physical weight and stress each person will have to contend with when carrying a large 50 pound backpack as well as a 10 pound weapon and hundreds of magazines of ammunition, food, tools and supplies. Aside from experienced hikers and military units, the ordinary person would not be able to withstand the stress of prolonged weight lifting and the rapid loss of calories from rigorous activity on a day-to-day basis. The psychological stress could be calculated, much like in the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper game, so that the player has to make checks against insanity the longer he or she plays, becoming more frequent the more horrifying the events a character sees or experiences. Failing the checks a character descends into madness, depression and possibly suicide. *See references at bottom of post for more information*

But this is a sample of simulationist thinking and not gamist thinking. IE, the more realistic a game is, the less of a 'game' it becomes. You would not level up, you would not get points - you would simply be a person in a world trying to survive. However, Fallen Earth is a game based on rules and points like other massively multiplayer games, full of competition and caveats such as playing as a 'clone', allowing you to bypass the realities of life and death, and 'mutations' that allow for rapid health regeneration.

If you had a pie graph, you could divide games into three categories: Gamism, Simulationism, and Narrativism: the latter focusing on story driven elements, and the extremes of each form alienating the others. But the best video games are a combination of all three, or at least two. You can see how role-playing games fit into this wheel. You can also see how, given the three archetypes, it is not a bad thing to be more inclined towards one side of the spectrum or another. People will have their own innate preferences, based upon the game types they have enjoyed throughout their lives. Need for Speed: Shift incorporates simulationist and gamist thought by allowing the controls to assist the player and encourage arcade-style racing, while allowing simulationist players the ability to remove those same assists and further, to activate full damage scaling with life-like effects to bring a more realistic experience to the forefront.

Challenging people and calling them names and harassing them because they enjoy a different type of game is futile, in this light. As said, "To each their own", which is why some people like Call of Duty 4 and some like Red Orchestra, the former being a more arcade style shooter and the latter being more realistic in practice. Some prefer Ace Combat 6 and some prefer Microsoft Flight Simulator, again a contrast between arcade style gaming and simulation type gaming as far as airplanes are concerned. World of Warcraft is a streamlined, competitive game that focuses heavily on the gamist side of the spectrum, incorporating elements of narrativism but little in the way of simulationism. Dying is temporary; the game's main drive is fun at the expense of the rules of reality. There are other massively multiplayer games that take a different approach, some with a fully player driven economy or even perma-death, but there are limits to what each person will endure before a game goes too far beyond his or her innate preferences. This falls outside of whether or not a game achieves it's goals, whether technically or otherwise, and resides in whether or not a game is enjoyable to the player.

You will find complaints of Fallen Earth because the game does not align with every individual's preferences for entertainment. Fun is supplanted by toleration, perhaps because you may have friends who play and you want to stay in-game for their sake. I chose this game because the trailers and advertising made me think I was getting a first-person shooter/MMO like Huxley or Planetside, that would in essence be an extension of Fallout 3, that is to say, merging the elements of a first person shooter with role-playing game qualities, much like Deus Ex. When playing Fallen Earth the game functions better in third person mode, and the FPS portion is not conveyed in a manner that appeals to players expecting Deus Ex/Fallout 3 type mechanics (such as incorporating interactive elements/inventory management, like the wrist attached pip-boy), or players who are used to Quake or Counter-Strike's arcade style mechanics and want to get into a more persistent world instead of server hosted maps. In this way, I think most players who come in expecting that aforementioned kind of gameplay will feel misled and upset that they did not get what they wanted. Players who have little to no experience with FPS mechanics will not necessarily mind, nor will players who have an ideal of 'fun' that coincides with what this game gives to the player.

My solution is an adaptation of the east-Asian model for MMO games, whereby a micro-transaction system is employed that offers the game as a free platform for players to sample and ascertain if they like it or not. Committing say, $10 a month to content and items a player wants when he/she can afford it may encourage more players to stay longer and bring friends to the game akin to the viral spread of internet media. It also allows players to try the game and not feel pressured to 'love or hate' it, because the initial investment is the time to install it only. Western massively multiplayer games are beginning to adapt this system gradually, with Dungeons & Dragons Unlimited being the latest addition. D&D Unlimited is free to play with micro-transactions adding content and cosmetics to the game when and if you want them.

To conclude, a game that focuses too heavily on one archetype of gamism, simulationism, or narrativism, will alienate players with alternate game-type preferences. I ask for a more open-minded view of what other people enjoy, and not use it as a point of contention and division. Lastly, I call for a shift in how western MMO's function, changing from a premium retail box fee and monthly subscription cost to a freely distributed platform, backed up with a micro-transaction model that allows players to spend as little or as much on the game as they want, and encourages a 'try before you buy' mentality with no pressure of 'loving or hating' the game. The end result should remove a great deal of anxiety and general defensiveness players have towards a product, as the investment is no longer a point of contention.

See also: - GNS theory, note: to advance a page, scroll to the bottom of the site - information about the call of Cthulhu game


  1. Right now, MMOs follow a doctrine of absurd gamism. I think it harms them more than it helps, primarily because the "game" aspects of MMOs are, in general, so poor. MMOs would be so much better if they brought more simulation to the table. More developed simulations would allow players to make decisions based on what they know about the real world, and to learn about the real world through the effects of their actions in game. This doesn't mean simulating the banal rigamarole of everday activities, but instead simulating the parts of characters' lives that are fun to play.

    After all, the foundations of play lie in modeling real-world actions that we would want to do or perhaps hope to do.

  2. Thanks for the links to your blog, evizaer. I'm reading it now and I'm really thankful you stopped by to let me know about it. :)