Game mechanics, Information, “fun” & “Cheating” and the meta-game

Raph had another post that in reality is a continuation of the RMT argument. As I said earlier I don’t care too much about the topic. But Raph brought as analogy strategy sites in and makes roughly the bold claim that RMT and the existence of strategy sites is the same: They are both “cheating”.

But don’t take my vague summary, read Raph’s full post + discussion.

I think the statement of Raph’s that best describes what I disagree with is this:

A strategy guide that gives you the pattern may not teach you the timing, but it’s giving you info you are supposed to learn the hard way.

The key word is “supposed to”. Who should decide how things are fully supposed to happen? The designer, or also the gamers? I believe that gamers have a word in the decisions how they want to play games and if they decide they are in fact not supposed to learn certain things the hard way that is fine. If doing it the hard way isn’t fun, the game design has failed and not the gamer.

Here is how I reacted to the whole set of ideas in the comment section of Raph’s blog:

For me the main two flaws in the argument is what I’d call the “designer’s intent fallacy” and the idea that “information is game mechanics”.

The first fallacy is that players have to play a game (online or offline) at the terms that the designers originally intended.

For example, a game gets designed to have tricky riddles with an estimation that exploring clues for the riddles will take X hours. The player however doesn’t actually care to play the game for the riddles, they want to see the story unfold. Hence the player bypasses the riddle to progress the story faster than the designer intended. This isn’t “cheating”. It’s having different intent and possibly a different idea what “fun” is. (i.e. the player may not find it fun to keep dying in the same situation too often in a row, even if the game designer thought that the fun here is overcoming the challenge.)

Basically the reason why I use offline strategy guides is because of exactly this. I actually don’t like some game design decisions, and rather than play the game on the designers terms I ease the situation to be able to play it on mine.

One could actually take this as one measure of good game design: Are gamers likely or less likely to seek external help or relief. Rather than putting this on the gamer and calling them cheaters one could well put this on the designer and question if they made a game that matched what gamers wanted or provided mechanism that was tedium and not fun and people want to bypass them.

But for MMOs it’s even different. Thottbot and Alakhazam is not more cheating than a guild forum or a guild channel or even an ingame channel with people asking for help. Yes Thottbot offers extra information on top of it but there again it’s actually blizzard’s decision that they accept this. Given their ToS/EULA they could actually sue data-miners but they don’t. Thottbot and other sites are the “meta” game that goes with WoW and is very much part of the design. How great is it for a game that people send time exploring what to do next, what treasures to hunt, how to solve a difficult encounter _while not even in the game_. By having people engrossed in the meta-game, MMO designs win. Cheating is something that’s against the rules. Per Blizz’s rules at least, those web-sites are not cheating because they aren’t sued. After all everything that’s in WoW is Blizzard’s property and they certainly could if they wanted to.

And even if they wanted to, people can and will discuss strategies. It’s a social game and one cannot control communication. Asking for help on a quest and actually getting tips is not cheating at all. It’s supported by chat channels and guild structures.

Finally, if programmers think that if you have a full strategy to a WoW raid boss that means you just type as you enter and everything is done, those game programmers have no idea. Seriously. And I say this as someone who extensively researched and implemented raid strategies for raid groups.

Let me put it like this: Just because you know the theory of 10-finger typing and the basic rules of patterns in the 10-finger layout to get to words, doesn’t mean that under pressure you will type without mistakes.

That raid encounter programmer (as you seem to claim) don’t understand this is intriguing to say the least. By your argument most of WoW’s raid encounters should be downed by all raid groups who try, because after most use strategy guides extensively and they are available in abundance. Funny enough raid groups still learn on encounters that are reduced to typing for them at this point.

I actually also disagree that finding the strategy is the hard part. At least in WoW raiding finding the strategy is a matter of staring at the combat log and seeing what killed you. In virtually all cases it’s rather obvious what the counter is. In fact good boss designs will gently teach you what the counter is. Take tranq book dropping off the first MC boss and the second MC boss going into a frenzied state. In that design it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to give you the answer: Tranq the frenzy. If your tank gets feared, use abilities that control fear etc. The only raid encounter in WoW that took very long to get a strategy for was four horsemen. Why? Because the encounter design drastically broke expectations, by actually requiring raid groups to stack tanks (8 instead of the typical 5) and the generic assumption was that Blizzard would never design encounters that would force classes to be benched. They did and it took long for people to learn that lesson. Other than that implementing strategy is harder than learning it in most WoW encounters.

Heck everyone knows that you need to click the cubes at Magtheridon (and the encounter design pretty much gives that away as being the solution) and they still wipe to it.

The challenge to raiding is (a) finding a strategy and (b) implementing it. And in good raid design (b) is non-trivial and this is true for WoW raiding at least. If (a) and (b) takes too long combined, then the game designers failed not the raiders who read strategies others posted. I.e. back to the “designer’s intent fallacy”.

I’ll stay away from the RMT polemic though. I don’t find it very helpful to equate those things simply because noone ever broke into an MMO account and stripped a character to improve their raid strategy. But people certainly do just that to make some real money. No RMT is not like strategy web-sites for sure… The real question is if something is wanted or unwanted. A level 1 character spamming the say channel with RL commercials is not wanted on an RP server, yet economic drive makes it happen. This is a completely different thing than people asking in the same channel if someone can give a hint on a quest they have trouble with (that one is wanted). People do write hacking programs, but funny enough the majority do consider those cheating, because they are game mechanics. You claim that information is game mechanics but that’s a mistake, because you cannot control information hence you never designed it. If you design a game assuming that no guide book can ever be published it’s a designer flaw not a gamer flaw.

And if an offline game really drives people to use trainer programs, it’s again very likely a design flaw. If players wanted a managable fast mode and the designer didn’t offer one the design is flawed and not the reaction to the design.

Let me give another example: Threat in WoW. This mechanics is originally hidden, but started to play a crucial role in the ability to beat encounters (non-taunting tank rotations, like needed for Vaelastrasz or Huhuran) to beat the encounter players have to learn threat. The design of the game literally encouraged people to research how threat works and they did. Today we have fairly accurate Threat meters that tremendously help at threat based encounter designs. What is blizzards reaction? Not banning threat meters or calling them bad. Rather they announce that their own interface will give more visual cues related to threat. They could have made the threat mechanism more hidden by adding more randomness, but they chose not to do so and the mechanisms was revealable, and it’s allowed to be such. In fact the meta-game of understanding game mechanisms is a crucial part of WoW. High-end raiding is literally impossible without some level of understanding _unpublished_ game mechanics. No manual by blizz ever informs the gamer how to reach crit immunity, yet boss encounters are unbeatable if the boss crits a tank. The whole game is to allow the community to unearth the mechanism and that is very allowable and I’d argue intended.

But had threat never played a crucial part in beating encounters I’d argue that threatmeters probably wouldn’t have developed. Their appearance was “designed”. And yes, some designs are unintentional but the game designer did pick the selective pressures even if not forseeing the reactions.

There are things that Blizz does not like, which is in-game bypassing of paced content. But here again it’s design flaws that reveal this possibility. Currently warlock summoning is disabled in Zul’Aman because in conjuction with terrain exploits people could bypass content that wasn’t intended to be bypassable. Real problem is that the terrain wasn’t safely designed. Typically Blizz here too takes the right approach and rather than calling people cheaters and leaving things be, they fix their design mechanisms to prevent the unintended bypass. In a sense this is exactly the point: The thing they do have control over is the actual game mechanics and not the information. Blizz controls in-game mechanics but not information flow. Rather information flow is encouraged and allowed. Hence information is not game mechanics in the same sense as game mechanics is. Information is a separate meta-game that the designer doesn’t have full control over (and will fail if he tries).

I really believe that WoW at least is already in a way a socially designed game, exactly through the meta-game discussion it induces. If we want to be funny we can call that social meta-game “cheating”.


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