How Game Design is like String Theory (A tale told in eleven dimensions, most of them very small)

My recent post about raid gating calls out the hoary old casual-versus-hardcore shouting match debate, which got me thinking about how it’s even possible to have the debate in the first place. No matter who you are, the same numbers plug in and come out to a different answer.

There’s one other thing that has this kind of characteristics: String Theory.

A little background

So, first of all, String Theory ((This is by no means extremely accurate. I am an armchair scientist with great interest in such matters, but I am not an ACTUAL scientist!)).  Actually, these days they call it “Multiverse” Theory (unless that’s changed recently).

Anyhoo. Multiverse Theory. Right.

Multiverse Theory is an attempt by theoretical physics to explain the Universe using one elegant set of rules. It came to be as a means of finding a way to resolve issues found in String Theory.  There were certain terms in the equations that could be any number of values and yet the equations balanced out. This made no sense, and, really, was a move away from the simple elegance of the theories behind the Electromagnetic and Electroweak Force equations that set the previous examples.

“Aha”, one bright fellow said. “But what if only ONE term is true in OUR universe … and the rest are true in others?   Then the equation can be right for all these values, but still maintain integrity in our universe.”

Well, like everything involving String Theory, it probably helps to be totally snoggered.  But he did do math, so it must be right. Right?

And the point being

So this is where the relationship to game design comes in.

A good game design really depends on who you are.  A casual gamer likes lots of diverse but not really intense things to keep interest. Hardcore raiders think that 40-man hardmode raids are the only reason to make a game in the first place. The CEO thinks a great game design brings in lots of profit and all that gameplay stuff is just the means to the ends.

The ideal game will take all those different requirements, plug them in, and no matter who you are, satisfy what you want out of that game.

But that’s not game design

True enough – what I’ve described so far is that different people have different desires in what they get in a game. But I’m going to argue that that very same thing does come into play during a game’s design, implementation, and test cycles.

Blizzard CMs, for example, often come from a very leet group of people that have experience with many other games, MMOs and then some. They’re steeped in gamer culture to an extent that few people manage to achieve – and that’s before they become CMs. People like Tigole (( AKA Jeff Kaplan, who later became one of the actual game designers at Blizz.)), who see endgame equated to raiding because that’s how things were when they were guild leaders in EQ et cetera. ((PS: Tigole is no longer on WoW – he’s on “Titan”, or so we guess, so if that’s an MMO? Expect raiding!))

These guys have a lot of influence over how a game is shaped during pilot, alpha, and beta. And they can fuel or quash entire threads of intent on the forums, shaping perceptions in specific fashions ((Speaking of which, his infamous rant is gone, 404sright out, but the website for his old EQ guild is alive and kicking. RETCON, YO!)).

Project Managers on the other hand are going to be focused on more concrete goals, and often are heard saying weird things like “Wow, that sounds great, Bob, but can you design, implement, and test the entire Elemental Plane of Water in six months?  No?  Okay, I need you to be getting the Firelands code ready, then.”  I mean, is that freaky, or what?  But is it possible that that conversation actually took place in some form concerning the Throne of Tides raid, assuming it existed?  Sure. Because the design of the game sometimes calls for sacrifice of one’s pet feature in order to meet real and actual deadlines.

CEOs have completely different goals. First of all, it’s about profits and ROI. But when you’re Blizzard / Activision CEO and Potsie Webber cosplayer Bobby Kotick, it’s also about fear and loathing. Infamously quoted as being okay with using fear as a tool for keeping his costs down and timelines accurate, he ranks right up there on the list of people I’m glad got promoted out of relevancy to the rank and file.

But his focus is going to be that timeline, and so if you’re Chris Metzen, and Bobby says ship those damned pandas on the 25th or pack your shit up … you ship those damned pandas. And possibly the game loses a feature or three ((I’m looking at you, dance studio.)).
All of these plug in

If you’re Bobby Kotick, Zynga is a dream come true, and a constant source of ennui ((“Why, oh why, didn’t I think of that?””)). Now, there’s a company that puts minimal effort into design and implementation, but rakes in the cash, because the games are metrics-based, rather than designed for the user.  Game design = make moar moniez. That’s all. It’s sweet, until you step on EA’s talliwacker.

If you’re Chris Metzen, lots of death metal is the deal.  And  he had his way in WotLK. They even have that asshat from Corpsegrinder IN THE GAME.   Chris Metzen is a happy man.

If you’re Dave Kosak, a great game has great writing, plot, interesting things to do, and hopefully humor ((The less poop involved, the better, but I guess we know how that went in Cata, don’t we?))

If you’re the GM of Ensidia ((Or whatever those shameless prats call themselves these days.)) ((What’s especially funny about this is that Tigole wasn’t even on the WoW team when that was written.)) then the ideal MMO has endgame content that’s achievable to you but not to average raiders, without a lot of farming.

If you’re a bank step preener, the idea game design lets you get a freakishly rare mount that covers all the mailboxes while you sit on the bank steps and preen.

So many

Point being, there are so many ideal games.  The “causal” element of Cata and now MoP caused a lot of the Ensidia types to blow a gasket at how much they felt their accomplishments were diluted by the fact that others could, in fact, accomplish the same thing. Many hardcore raiders bleated that they’d never play again over the oppressive nerfs of the Cata endgame, for example ((On the other hand, more or less average raiders like mine never got Rag down – at all – even with the nerfs.  So be happy, Ensidia-types, your e-peen is maintained.)).

Then the forum rats chimed in – a group with another completely different view of the game.  You can think of them as game design min-maxers, or maybe the theoretical physicists of the WoW world. In the same way that String Theory can’t be proven or disproven, neither can many of their theories. But it doesn’t stop them from having a huge ((Possibly undue.)) influence on the game’s design.

The RPers and casuals? Well, they don’t run blogs, have raiding guild forum posts, or post to the forums.  So no telling what they think, but I imagine they probably wonder why raids are so damned inaccessible.

All of these are the reality of WoW game design. They all have equal validity, depending on who you are.

The only way through this is to have a little empathy for your fellow gamer. Rather than harsh on the RPers ((No matter how tempting.)), leave them alone in Pornshire if they aren’t hitting on your boyfriend. Rather than dismiss the casuals, recognize that they’re bankrolling your leet raiding experience, often because they forgot they actually still had a subscription. Don’t like raiders? Well, don’t hang out by the bank steps, and turn off Trade Chat.  Don’t dig the forum rats? Don’t read the forums.  Go about your little virtual life and don’t let them get to you.

Because, ya know. All those factions have trolls.


Posted on August 8, 2012, in Game mechanics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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