Embracing the tide of fleeting persistency

Bhagpuss nailed it. He just went ahead and nailed it.

Ever since I started playing multiplayer games and then switched to their “massively” department, my interest in single player games took a nose dive. For a long time, the explanation was clear and apparent: it’s just more fun to play with others, to experience the community, the teamwork, the competition. The social component, you see. Case closed, right?

Well, after quitting WoW in 2011, I was really rather fed up with all things social. My desire to play with someone else or against someone else hit absolute rock bottom, and yet…

Building up Steam

Skyrim was the perfect game at the perfect time for me. I had figured out my work-life-schedule, wanted to play something in my free time and couldn’t be bothered with other people. And everyone around was (still is, it seems) gushing about how that freshly released game was the best thing since sliced bread.

So, I went out and bought it. And had to set up a Steam account to play it. Yes, I know, I know. But, look, I had not played a single player game in years (the last one being Neverwinter Nights), so what use would a Steam account have been to me? For me, Steam was basically “that anti-cheat software Counter-Strike introduced a decade ago”. Never having played Counter-Strike either (except once at a private LAN-party, when my friends convinced me to try it and an hour later I begged them to stop threatening to fall asleep otherwise), I never had any use for it. To this day, my Steam library consists of just two games: Skyrim and Civilization V. I think I forgot my account password. Again.

Anyway. Skyrim. Me. Ready to go.

On horses and brigands

I lasted 16 hours. That’s what Steam tells me how long I played. In total. For a game that cost 60 Euro, that’s not a great value return. What went wrong?

I’ll spare you the rant about the silly console-oriented UI, won’t go into what I liked and what not. We’re talking a game that’s four years old now. Everything that had to be said about the good, the bad and the ugly has been said, written down, printed out, archived and subsequently shredded for data privacy protection purposes. No need to go there again. None of it was the problem anyway. Let me tell you what was, but first, let me tell you in advance, that this is entirely subjective. I mean, the elements I’ve been observing were objectively there, but my personal interpretation of those is subjective and doesn’t aspire to the status of some absolute truth in any way.

I remember getting a horse. Acquiring a mount is a good old MMO-staple, so that felt familiar. So, how do I call the horse? Oh, I don’t, it’s just there, I simply … mount it. Cool. How do I dismiss it? Oh, I don’t either! I simply climb down and then it stands there. So this wasn’t so much “my horse” as “a horse”, which I acquired the “legal” right to use. That was great, just like in the real world! So authentic!

So authentic … when it’s so authentic, you can’t help but wonder: what does it eat? What does it drink? When I leave it standing outside and it rains or snows, will it get a cold? Why is it not getting tired when I use it to ride for hours on end? Why, for that matter, am I not getting tired? Why does that stupid thing just stand there motionless, staring at me, waiting for me to act? No real horse would ever act like that!

I remember killing brigands near a cave. Then placing them in funny poses. Come on, you did that as well. Everyone did. Because we could. I remember returning to that cave some time later and finding them there, just as I left them. Again, realistic. But then again, since it was realistic, it compelled my mind to think further. And I remember thinking that this effectively means that this world I’m traveling has a fixed, finite number of brigands. Which, in turn, meant that I could rid this entire world of brigands by killing all of them. The pretend-world, after all, was, although large, not large enough to prevent me from doing it by making it take so long that a natural restocking of ranks would occur, which was undoubtedly not simulated anyway. Nor was it designed to make them bond together, flee, hide, fortify or try to stop me in any other way. I was their God, not just a hero or a Dragonborn, but an honest-to-god … God, as they lived and died by my mercy, just like everything else in the world that would only exist when I deigned to gaze at it, when the holy SaveGame would be loaded. And it freaked me out.

Uncanny Tamriel

The Uncanny Valley describes the phenomenon that human perception of a simulation improves as the quality of the simulation increases and then takes a sharp plunge (the namesake valley) when the simulation becomes “almost but not quite” real. There is a fantastic video on youtube showing Emily, a computer-animated person. She looks totally authentic, to the point where it needs to be explicitly restated at the end that yes, you really were watching an animation until then. And then there are a few short, fleeting moments when something about her eyes or her mouth moves in a way that instantly sends shivers down your spine, triggering some dark, primal, instinctive fear.

This is a part of what happened to me in Skyrim. “Come closer,” said the game, “take a look at my authentic and realistic brilliance!” But that’s the thing: when you get closer, you notice cracks you didn’t care about before, but which now seem deeper and darker than anything experienced prior. Or to quote Bhagpuss: It’s the way non-persistent worlds get so close to seeming “real” and then stop dead that causes the disconnect, I think. It’s jarring in a way the ongoing “we know this doesn’t make sense but we’ll all pretend it does” endless MMO Valhalla isn’t.

Massively Singleplayer

I honestly think that’s really it, for me. The way this fake-persistency makes everything seem so artificial, the attempt to make the world come to life making it appear dead to me. It’s the lack of a necessity to move on, to evolve, to preserve, to regrow that makes the game world appear to be all about me. And a world that is all about me can neither be realistic nor interesting.

Not too long after my Skyrim experiment ended, Star Wars: The Old Republic was released. I hesitated at first, but ended up getting it after a colleague recommended it. I played (almost) all the way to level cap without ever grouping or interacting with anyone. And yet it felt “right”. I was part of an online world inhabited by other people with their own goals, interests, schedules and preferences. It was my preference not to interact with them. But nevertheless, they were there, and their presence made the world seem real. And the fact that we shared that world made every little action much more persistent than a brigand corpse that never goes away or a horse that doesn’t either could ever do. At least, for me.

And, let me tell you, I played SWTOR, even during just that first time, for much longer than 16 hours. Making it a much better value for money proposition as well.

Nightfall Online

I remember – and will probably always remember – my first vivid impression of LotRO. I was running around the starter zone (obviously) and coming across a busy square time and time again. I played for quite a while and the hour was turning late. During the evening hours the square I had to repeatedly cross was buzzing with people. And when the time wore on and the PM turned AM the buzz slowly died down. Just a few adventurers would still be going about their business. Night fell and the people playing the characters went to bed. So did the characters. Night fell. The NPCs stood there, of course, unchanged, unmoved, always at the ready. But the world had calmed down regardless. Night fell. The way night falls in the real world, with real people going to sleep. Real people who would see you run across a square – or not see you when they were asleep, or when you would not be there yourself. Night fell.

Once you’ve been there, you cannot go back.

The Rem Awakens

Now look at this, all dusty and rusty…

*deletes spam comments*

*updates theme and layout*

*sweeps the place clean*

Better. So, is anyone still reading? Looks like I haven’t posted anything in … oh, just over 4 years. What I’ve been up to all this time, you ask? Well…

I’m still working at the job I started when I stopped blogging. It quickly became obvious that it’s pretty much my dream job. Likewise, my employer thinks highly of me as well and I got promoted fairly frequently. Now I’m on my way to “lead level”, which is a more complicated process than previous promotions.

Two and a half years ago I met a wonderful girl. She’s my best friend, the love of my life, the best conceivable partner for everything and my dearest darling. We married last year.

This summer, we moved from Berlin to Frankfurt to increase the probability of me getting project assignments near my home. And indeed, after four years of weekly flights and being recognized on sight at hotel receptions, I’m now actually sleeping at home most of the time and traveling to work by bus. Amazing!

I played (in many cases “tried”) a number of games over the years, which I might elaborate on in more detail in future posts. I know, you’re not holding your breath. Can’t blame you for being skeptical.

  • RIFT – unsubscribed pretty soon after writing I wouldn’t.
  • Skyrim – took all of 16 glorious hours for me to lose interest.
  • SWTOR – shortly after launch, stopped one level short of the (original) level cap.
  • EVE Online – loved its incredible depth, subscribed for 6 months, stopped playing after 3.
  • The Secret World – pretty much at launch; it was great, it was weird, it was different, it was awesome, and it sadly failed to grab me.
  • Guild Wars 2 – some good ideas, but not my cup of tea.
  • SWTOR – shortly before meeting my future wife, played a new character to level 45 over the Christmas holiday period.
  • Titan Quest – a first attempt to introduce my  (then not yet) wife to gaming. We both hated it and the introduction almost ended there.
  • Neverwinter Nights – a second attempt at playing together and first signs of fun. The game felt incredibly dated though and weirdly unwieldy.
  • LotRO – we played for a bit and she liked it! I felt incredibly annoyed by the spineless cash-grab the game had become. Didn’t get out of the starter area. However, she said she enjoyed having a nice story, so…
  • SWTOR – oh look. There we go again, this time together. We played a pair of characters all the way to level 35, then stopped because we had lots of stuff to take care of (getting married for example). Didn’t play anything for a year and a half. There was a good chance that that would have been it for good.
  • SWTOR – here we go again! Having settled in in our new home and our new life rhythm, we decided to give the hobby another go.

That’s where things stand. Let’s see where they go.


To probably absolutely no one’s surprise, I haven’t blogged a bit since starting on my previously mentioned new job. I’m still settling in and getting my mental and physical rhythms in order, thus after a day full of thinking, I currently quite enjoy an evening of not thinking and thus also not trying to write something intelligent. Things will shake out in time.

Speaking of time. Now that I’m working full time, I certainly don’t and will never again have time for gaming, right? Yeah … kind of wrong. Last night, having come back home, changed, unpacked and eaten, I contemplated going to my PC and suddenly realised that I actually have bugger all to do until Monday. That’s a not-so-secret perk of holding a real job: you’re out of that state when you kind of always have some sort of “stuff to do”, you can work long hours, but once you’re done – for the day or week – you’re done. I’m not claiming any “original revelation” here, but when just two hours after literally landing at home I start thinking about literally taking off back to work, there’s clearly something wrong with the notion of “no time for anything ever again”.

Naturally I’ll be more selective in the future than I used to be regarding what to play and how to play. I shall elaborate on both, and especially on the latter you may (or may not) find the conclusions I draw for myself surprising. So, this is really more of a bridge post. As usual, there is hope that the other end of the bridge touches down somewhere solid ;)

I am not, in fact, dead

Quite the opposite, the reasons for my sudden radio silence have been solely positive. I interviewed for a new job, got said new job and have since been busy being happy about finally being able to do the work I want to do, attending my new employer’s summer party, as well as preparing for the changes to come. I’m starting next week, and speaking of changes: as an IT consultant I’ll be on-site with clients for most (if not all) of the work week. That does, naturally, change a few things.

Gaming-wise, it means that at least for the next few months I’ll be a weekend gamer at most. The timing is pretty good, because right now, to put it harshly, there is no game I’d really deeply want to play anyway. I am (purposefully) without a guild and without strong ties, therefore, while RIFT is a good game and quite fun, emotionally, to play it or not to play it are just a shrug apart right now. I’ll write about my more detailed opinion of RIFT soon (I’m not cancelling my subscription, by the way).

Blogging-wise, it might actually mean that I’ll be blogging more. Until now, blogging has basically competed for time resources with gaming. In the future, I’m quite likely to find myself with time to blog but not to play, and I still have lots of thoughts to express – might even get through my draft folder ;)

The new and improved Rem is ready to take on his new and improved life. Just wanted to let you, my faithful readers, know that all is well and more is to come!

The Skill Paradox

A little while ago I came across a comment on a blog which claimed that “as we know, most MMO players are bad”. I did – and do – find it curious, because this indeed does get passed around as a universal truth: most people we meet online are terrible players. Naturally and curiously except for those we’re having these discussions with, we’re all just fine. This, to hit where it hurts right from the start, is basically the same reasoning that constitutes racism: “all black people are savages, except for Joe, who’s a member in my Country Club”. We can even admit the popular argument that the blogging community in a way self-selects the better, because obviously more invested, players – and who doesn’t like to attribute themselves to a self-proclaimed elite; us bloggers, we’re awesome, aren’t we – and it still plays on the same lawn as racism, after all, the Country Club is also obviously a selective environment, but those other black people, the ones outside, they’re obviously savages. It is the hypocrisy that makes every representative of a group one knows by name and face an exception, while at the same time maintaining blanket judgements about the large anonymous group as a whole. That’s not what this post is about though. Instead, I’d like to consider how we arrive at the perception.

First of all, the claim itself that “most players are terrible” is inevitably wrong. As I casually remarked recently, we all live in the Gaussian Curve, and what it really means is that most players are average, as this is how most natural averages form, with only few cases when the data points are crowded near the extremes and the average is a mostly virtual value. An example of the latter could be the life expectation during the European Middle Ages, which was mathematically around 35, but if you look at the numbers closer, you realise that it doesn’t mean that “most people died around age 35”, but that the horrifyingly high infant mortality skewed the statistic and what it rather means is “if you survived past the age of 1, you were probably going to run for the 70”. But this is unnatural, an anomaly. Usually distributions follow the Gaussian Curve, which is why it’s called the Normal Distribution.

There are of course special situations, like, say, Wrath of the Lich King creating a particular expectation about content difficulty and the subsequent Cataclysm taking things in a somewhat different direction. But the aforementioned sentiments gets stated sweepingly, not in some differentiated “in early 2011, large parts of the WoW player base were not prepared for the content difficulty presented to them”, and gets accepted sweepingly. In fact, I can be reasonably sure that someone will actually comment on this very post that “no-no, really, everyone is terrible”. Well, maybe not after I wrote this, kind of falsifying the experiment. Or maybe not, because there are, like, 5 people commenting on my posts, so this isn’t exactly a relevant sample size of anything.

Still, the whole WotLK/Cata thing also highlights that, of course, skill is not an abstract concept, it is relative to difficulty of the task in question. So, yes, if we’re talking about reciting randomly selected works of Shakespeare while running a marathon in Antarctica, most people would be pretty terrible at it. Shopping for groceries on the other hand is something most would find pretty easy, catering to the casuals, almost. Here’s the thing though: in the context of a game, i.e. voluntary entertainment activity, people gravitate towards and away from activities such that in the long term, you are left with your normal distribution again – those for whom it’s too hard or too easy mostly leave. Even now, I think the Cata-difficulty issue is pretty much settling itself (Nils has some great recent posts on why having just one difficulty for everyone is bad design), because the averages are adjusting themselves, people are settling in their new relative positions and the content is self-nerfing.

Then there is always the possible explanation that there are, at any time, many new and inexperienced players. But frankly, this is not what the statement quoted at the outset states. “Most players are new” is not the same as “most players are bad”, even though it’s similarly unlikely. More importantly, catering to new players is by far not the same as catering to bad players. In fact, catering to new players is very important, as the expectation we have is that new players are going to learn, while bad players are not. Conversely, if you don’t let your players learn (cater to new players), you raise incompetent players (well hello, trivialised levelling game).

Last and least, because it’s mostly an exercise in being a smartass, the statement doesn’t even make sense on a logical-linguistic level. If “most players are terrible”, then terrible is the average, thus most players are average. If you’re the brilliant exception, then it’s you who is in the wrong place and probably should go back to the South Pole Stadium-slash-Theatre.

So far, we have a brief outline of why “most players are terrible” should be considered to be wrong. Yet there are lots of people who will tell you that and be genuinely surprised that anyone should think otherwise (remember the bit with the potential comment on this post? Wait for it, still may happen!). Why is this? After thinking about it for a bit, I realised that the solution is The Blub Paradox. It’s a fairly long and technical essay, rich on self-praise, but well worth reading if one is interested in the matter. I will proceed to adopt the part relevant to describe The Skill Paradox.

Imagine the Skill Continuum. No, it’s not the point in space-time a gamer occupies at 13:37. It’s the line on which all skill levels are laid out in increasing order, from a hopeless failure to the greatest winner. Now imagine a player A, whose skill places somewhere on the continuum, a safe distance from both extremes. As long as A is looking down the skill continuum, he recognises that he’s looking down. He can see all the things these players are doing wrong, all the mistakes they’re making, all the potentials for optimisation. If he’s looking up, however, he doesn’t realise that he’s looking up. All he can see are players who are basically just as good as him, only some of them tend to do things in weirdly esoteric ways. A may even consider some of them his inferiors, because, seriously, what sensible person would ever do those esoteric things. This is the Skill Paradox, meaning that we possess very pronounced abilities in recognising all the ways in which other players are worse than us, but are comparatively bad in perceiving the ways in which other players are better than us. The direct consequence is that we tend to think of ourselves as “very close to the top” regardless of where we actually place in the skill continuum, which in turn, especially if you’re not necessarily the self-scrutinising type, lends itself to the “most people are terrible” fallacy.

At this point I originally intended to write down personally experienced cases of when despite the apparently obvious presence of empirical evidence I wasn’t as good as I thought I were, and only got better after embracing details I previously had dismissed as irrelevant, ranging from my most newbish online gaming beginnings in the year 2000 to more recent experiences. In fact I even wrote down those examples, read through them, and they felt so full of unintended self-adulation that they made me sick. And, you know, as much as there is to say about how awesome I am (for example: how awesome I am), I ultimately decided that it would rather distract from than support the point.

The point being: as soon as you acquire even marginal competence in a field (note how we gently drifted away from being gaming-specific), you will find it easy to recognise the shortcomings of those below your level of competence – that’s why you’re better than them, you moved past making their mistakes. Your observations will objectively suggest that you’re “one of the best”, because everyone else you observe is “bad”, with the exception of those whose superiority you cannot fully comprehend as such, for the very same reason they are superior – they realised potentials you have yet to discover.

Shall you live in eternal self-doubt? No, not at all. If you feel you’re good, you probably are. No one is born a master. Just know there’s always a “better” as much as there’s a “worse”. This is also why I don’t like evaluating my own performance based on doing something others (supposedly) can’t do – it’s much more intriguing to consider what can be done than what can’t. Otherwise you’re going for that old trap where “anyone who has accomplished more than you has no life, and anyone who has accomplished less is a noob“.

There is another consequence to all of this, one that won’t sound particularly surprising: your ability to look up the Skill Continuum and realise that you are looking up is directly related to your ability to become better yourself. This is what teachers, trainers and guides do, they explain to their students how those esoteric things can make them better. The good ones do, the bad ones simply state what to do – and sadly there’s a huge demand just for that, seen in the MMORPG world where a lot more people blindly follow the cookie-cutter spec and rotation than actually understand why and under which conditions it is superior. Whenever you convince yourself that “this is as good as it gets”, you stop improving. A truism, really.

And just as I was about to finally post this (it’s the third rework or so), xkcd came out almost on cue: Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.

Level playing field

Yes, it’s going to be one of those posts.

When I started playing LotRO back in 2007, truth be told, a major motivation was to just “sample” what an MMORPG plays like, what it does wrong and to come up with ideas how it could be done better. I then found myself having lots of fun playing it and the rest is history. Not exactly history you can expect to be taught in history class. Unless it would, in some unthinkably wicked way lead to me ultimately making some sort of discovery that will elevate mankind onto another level. Which would be cool. Or to be directly related to me becoming a historically renowned villain. Which would be uncool. The part about me becoming a major villain, not so much about LotRO being directly linked to it. Although that would suck too, really tired of those “gamer plays games, goes on to destroy the Moon” stories. Other than those possibilities, I can’t really see how anyone would ever be taught the beginnings of my MMORPGaming in history class, so I guess it’ll be more like mysterious and forgotten history, rediscovered millennia later to make gullible people believe the world will end in 4012 AD. Don’t ask me why or how that can possibly have any connection or meaning at all, those future mountebanks are just crazy like that. How are my KiaSA-style tangents coming along? Working on it, working on it.

So, anyway, the earliest major point of criticism was, to put it in the words of a friend: “forget your stats, forget your gear; there is one number that determines how your character performs more than all others combined: your level”. Almost 4 years later, and the grave gravity of those words weighs heavily on my shoulders, like a heavy weight that makes everything appear much heavier. In fact, compared to what I’ve seen since, those heady days appear almost like a dream of level-unhindered harmony, when we’d be dancing and running over green meadows with higher and lower level mobs alike. Killing each other in the process, naturally. I mean us and the mobs, not players killing each other. LotRO is a fairly strictly PvE-focused game.

Mobs as far as 9 levels below you, if memory serves, would get on your case, as LotRO used a sharp aggro cut-off, rather than a gradual never-ending reduction in perception radius, if it was 10 levels below you, it would ignore your existence completely, but spot you perfectly fine if the difference was less. Which was more than a little silly from a simulation point of view. But naturally – and it’s a shame it’s so natural, really – no later than when you were 5 levels higher than the mob, the poor bugger may as well have had his weapons – or claws – replaced with cotton swabs, as they’d never be a danger to you. On the other end, you could pick a fight with a mob 5 levels above you, and it would be a winnable affair, the sharp cut-off, i.e. the point at which you’d just be precluded from being able to hit, coming somewhere (not far) above that. It was indeed easy to see that your level was not so much a representation of your character power, as naive pre-MMO me had thought, but the very basis and structure of said power, everything else effecting only a small variance.

This is not to downplay the insane power creep and power discrepancy games like WoW or RIFT create between characters of the same (max) level due to escalating gear rewards. Not only because any character below max level does not have access to that gear, but also because the means of earning that gear are usually balanced in such a way that there is no way for a sub-level-cap character to appropriately contribute to the success of the process of their acquisition, even if they are not, which is also often the case, mechanically excluded from participation at all. In other words, at best a raider can toss a BoE drop to a leveller/alt, which they won’t be able to equip until they hit level cap; there’s no way for the leveller/alt to actively earn that reward themselves.

Fast forward to RIFT. Let’s keep this short with one concise example: if I take on a mob 3 levels above me, something close to half of my attacks do not land in the target, despite me having a 5% hit bonus from talents and another 1.5% from gear stats. This breaks simulation, breaks immersion, and basically constitutes the game coming at me with a big flashing neon sign saying “do not go this way, go that way”. On the other end, of course, it also gets dull to fight mobs you outlevel pretty quickly. All in all, you end up with this really narrow corridor of “what you’re supposed to do”.

Why does this bother me particularly? Because I play together with MFCFKAMFDFKAMFLM (My Favourite Cleric Formerly Known As My Favourite Druid Formerly Known As My Favourite Lore-Mistress), and I’m really very much enjoying it. Currently, we’re levelling together. Levelling together means, because of the above, staying at the same level, ideally within a few percent points of a level from each other. As soon as you drift apart even a little, you start banging the walls of that narrow corridor and the game comes at you with its flashing neon signs. Consequently, when one of us doesn’t play, the other, effectively, can’t do anything. This is exacerbated by the quest driven game play, which offers you exactly one way to interact with the content, by “doing the quests” – which is content we want to do together. In fact, RIFT offers a resort of sorts here, in the form of the namesake rifts – one could run around a lower level zone just outside the XP range and close rifts. Doing something like that alone does start feeling like an end in itself pretty quickly though.

So what’s the result? A subconscious rush to level cap. Which is ironic, because RIFT is a game that is actually really good fun to play below level cap as well. I have been and am still enjoying the levelling process, despite having never been a fan of quests. But this is one of the fundamental reasons why people rush to level cap. Not because we’re all impatient and can’t enjoy the road for the goal. Not all of us are, at least. No, it’s because only at level cap that number which is way more powerful than it should ever have been stops changing, and only then can we meaningfully play with others. Especially with specific others rather than random others. On a level field.

To close and be clear, I’m not complaining about playing together. Playing together is awesome. I’m complaining about the restraints resulting from a level-centric quest-driven game design. One of those restraints is that playing together only works either in a perfectly static group (which excludes the “sharing independently made discoveries and experiences” element) or at level cap (which needlessly devalues the game before level cap). Yeah, I told you it was going to be one of those posts.

More on Riddles

In my previous post I made a few remarks on how riddles shouldn’t be viewed as inherently slowing and interrupting, how they should be part of the game world and the game experience as a whole. The comments made me realise that I should have emphasised that point much more.

The problem is that when we say “riddle”, what we imagine is having to stop and align a bunch of stones such that they light up or something like that. And all the time while figuring out how to align them, our gaming (levelling?) flow is kind of interrupted and we feel slowed down. Then there is an easy way to accelerate and bridge that interrupt, namely by looking up the solution. Which we promptly do. Here’s the thing: when I say “riddle”, I don’t mean the “align five rocks” sort of things, at least not exclusively.

What I mean is this. Usually, that is in an MMORPG you’re likely to play in 2011, you get a quest that tells you to do something. And how to do that something is laid out step by step: kill X, loot Y, apply to Z. A riddle, in the wider sense of the term, for me, is when you have a goal but no recipe how to achieve it – you need to figure out how to get there yourself.

This comes with a few issues attached. For one, if all goals in your game come with a recipe, except for some, which you consider your “riddles”, the reality is that the recipe-driven gameplay takes place at a particular speed, which is, by nature, higher than a riddle-based one can be. Thus when your players get to your “riddle”, they feel slowed down, their flow interrupted. For example in the early levelling game in RIFT, in Freemarch, there are a couple of (story related) quests that ask you to find something/someone, but don’t tell you where. That doesn’t add any sense of mystery, but only annoyance, because all other quests tell (or rather show) you pretty exactly where to go, so suddenly having to run around more or less blindly, suspecting that there is probably exactly one right spot to look in, but unless you end up standing on top of it, you won’t know, because there are no hits to work with, feels rather awkward. Which leads in nicely to the second point.

In the real world, figuring things out is fun (if you’re the inquisitive type, that is) and actually even just possible, because everything takes place in a highly consistent system: the laws of nature. Any knowledge you have about how a certain process works is universally applicable, everywhere and always – and you accumulate a lot of that knowledge. All those “brilliant heads” we watch in our favourite TV shows, solving crimes and difficult problems, are basically characters who are really good at connecting causes and effects. A game world doesn’t have this luxury. The laws of a game world are – inevitably and in significant parts also desirably – different from those of the real world and potentially arbitrary at that. Therefore, unless you make an active effort to relay the laws of your game world to the players and then stay rigorously consistent, the players won’t have a frame of reference to work with. This is the important difference between being able to figure something out gradually and trying things at random until something works.

To use an example from RIFT again, there is this awkward “puzzle” in Moonshade Highlands, the point of which is basically to open valves along a water pipe to fill target reservoirs with water. The reservoirs are aligned in a chain, filling up one after the other. You fill up all 10 – you win. Each valve, after being opened, stays open for about 10-12 seconds and cannot be interacted with until it closes again (so you can’t just keep them open continuously, they will inevitably close and you’ll have to reopen). So far so pretty evident from the arrangement you find – it should also be noted that there is no actual “puzzle” element at work here, unlike in the other puzzles we did so far there’s no actual secret to solve here, it’s basically a click-time game, which is bad in itself, but that’s not the point here. The point is that how the riddle, or shall I say the water behaves is not consistent with anything you could derive from real world or game world observation.

The water flows when all valves are open, through the pressure generated by the source – so far so good. We’ll also accept that the valves auto-close after a while, because that’s how they work, fair enough, such are the tools we’re given. But why is it that water already in the target canisters starts draining when there’s no fresh water being pumped in? Is there a leak somewhere? Possible, but I can’t observe it. All I can see is lights going on and off, and when one of them remains on while the previous ones turn off, I have no idea whether it’s just a bug in the game or actual information being relayed to me. I can’t tell because neither is consistent with any reference system I’d feel my actions and their consequences bound to. Also, while it’s understandable that the flow stops when any of the valves closes, because that cuts off the pressure of the source, it is entirely unclear why this causes all water that is already in the pipe but not in the target canisters yet to outright disappear. That doesn’t align with any law of physics or game world one would be aware of. Shouldn’t it remain in the pipe and be pumped forward once I reopen the previous valves again? It just disappears. This behaviour cannot be derived from any other process observed in the game, nor is it teaching me anything about “how water behaves in RIFT”. It is nothing more than an arbitrary mechanic of this particular riddle. No consistency whatsoever.

This example got a bit lengthy, but was important to explain what I mean when I call for consistent rule systems. If we want players to figure something out, we need to give them knowledge based on which they can make educated deductions. We can’t give that knowledge out all at once, at the moment when it’s required – that’s the recipe approach utilised by modern day quests. We need to introduce it gradually, letting the players (interactively) observe consistent and reoccurring processes and events, allowing them to learn about the game world and how it works. And then, when someone goes ahead and creates an online resource about the consistent laws governing our game, no harm is done at all. This is what community research should be all about, rather than providing players with scripts to success.

Besides, we need the game to take place at a slower pace, such that stopping to think doesn’t feel like an interruption. Of course solutions will still be discovered and gathered online, but here’s the thing, once again (cf. previous post): players don’t look up everything, they look up things they aren’t having fun doing on their own. When the players feel slowed down, they will look up the solution to accelerate back to their usual pace. When they’re used to a slower pace in general, the difference won’t be there to compensate for.

The modern raiding game is a good example of a bad riddle, in fact. Why does everyone look up strategies (and then follow them with a ridiculous rigour, not understanding why something may or may not be applicable)? Because the pace set by the rest of the game doesn’t align with the notion of stopping to think, attempting to observe and find a solution. At the same time, the raid encounters themselves don’t make much of an effort to provide observable cues, to allow you to grasp what’s going on without already knowing in advance. As Telwyn commented on the previous post, the developers pretty much expect us to know. We’re very rarely provided with analogies to established knowledge, because there’s very little consistent knowledge that could be referenced to begin with. Except, you know, don’t stand in the stuff on the floor. Unless it’s good stuff. Naturally.