|January 20th, 2007|
This post starts out being about very gamey things like damage per second, and ends up on a speculative note. So if you’re the sort who comes here for stuff about social virtual worlds, read on, because this is relevant to you too.
Over at The Cesspit, Abalieno argues that “the mudflation from the perspective of those who build these kinds of games isn’t THE PROBLEM. The mudflation is THE SOLUTION.” The logic is simple:
- it’s inherent in the model
- consumed content leads to shared experiences, and being able to go back and see something that was once powerful and is now trivial helps that, and both of these feelings are core to the value offered by this style of game
- by rendering older content “useless” from a game point of view you re-establish the horizon for players, making the game have fresh goals
All of this is true. But…
Mudflation really is a problem. It has a few side effects that aren’t desirable:
- It makes the games less accessible to new players. This happens for a few reasons.
- Static content gets scaled off of the original values of things. In a mudflated scenario, it doesn’t get updated, typically. This means that your starting cash remains the same even as the value of a gold coin goes down; it means that the ideal level 5 weapon is something nicer than it used to be, because it’s now a level 10 weapon that has been discarded by a ;evel 15 player, rather than being the weapon that designers specced for level 5.
- New users now have less “buying power” so to speak. Yes, it’s overall easier for them to kill things. But the net effect is that it’s harder for them to reach the “new standard of living” because successful players accelerate faster off the intended difficulty curve. The game was specced for level 5 players tackling level 5 monsters with level 5 swords. But one guy gets a level 10 sword, and he cuts through the level 5 mobs like butter. Quickly he’s level 10 with a level 15 sword. The rest of the level 5 guys who want a level 10 sword have to try to obtain it based on friendship or based on the currency value. But the currency is deflated, and they only earn currency at the old-school level 5 rate. The result is more grinding for cash or XP.
- Social contacts get harder early in the game, because users accelerate out of the shared low level experience quickly. Your odds of making friends in that newbie experience are lower because people are just there for less time. It pushes towards coming in with friends, basically.
- It shortens the overall player lifespan in a game.
- Everything in the game gets easier, so people max out faster. That much is obvious.
- You end up in a high-level rat race, as a developer. All the content that is there gets deflated, meaning it’s faster to get through. Since the bulk of your users are rushing to high level, you logically spend your time making more high level content. You can add more on the end, basically laying more track in front of an onrushing train. Going back to make the base levels less deflated is hard, when you spend all your time working on new endgame material.
- But you can’t make content as fast as it is consumed, especially since the rate of consumption continues to rise. Each expansion you make must be scaled to the new competence level of players — not just their actual level, but the new reality of how fast they can chew through it. This means that when you make five level 60 expansions in a row, the last of them is MUCH harder than the first, even though they are nominally all the same.
- This means that as you seek greater challenges, you are more at risk of altering the fundamental gameplay. You switch to gameplay involving new challenges altogether: large-scale group coordination being the most popular (raids, politics, guilds, etc). This then alienates those players who aren’t after this different game, but want more of the same old game mechanic.
Remember, all of this happens even without expansions. A better way to put it might be that expansions are a solution to mudflation. Or some of mudflation, anyway.
Now, there’s something to what Abalieno says when he comments that in many ways this lifecycle is the lifeblood of the subgenre.
The mudflation isn’t a side effect, it’s exactly what the devs WANT. It’s the lifeblood of this model. Fighting it from the design perspective not only doesn’t work quite well, but it’s even counterproductive. The mudflation here is the *goal* and justification…
So the recipe is: we exploit it till we can. When it breaks we make another.
Basically, the logic here is that you milk it while you can. It presumes that the train does catch up to you eventually, and that therefore you should embrace the decay, so to speak. The goal then shifts to playing a game of timing: can you lay the last track just as your audience finally gets bored and is ready to move on to the next thing? (Which you presumably have sitting ready in the form of a sequel).
This timing trick is of course fiendishly difficult. But more importantly in terms of responding to Abalieno, it’s not at all “embracing” mudflation, which he suggests is what Blizzard is doing.
Mudflation is a side effect. It has some negative consequences, yes, but there are also positive effects to mudflation. For example — a repeat player will find the game easier to rush through to get to what they want to play again, so they aren’t quite as bored silly by grinding levels over again. A new player who is given lots of cool stuff feels prized and welcomed, and the older player giving it feels like a mentor. Older players can go back and see a dragon they once battled endlessly and barely beat, and now crush it like a bug, and feel like gods.
So it’s a side effect. As a side effect, you can either embrace it, or fight it.
The main reason why most everyone fights it (and WoW is BUILT on fighting it — soulbinding, bind on pickup, level restrictions, moving people from zone to zone so that they don’t revisit older dead content, tiered equipment, extremely limited economy with virtually no trade, etc) is because embracing it is too damn expensive.
To embrace mudflation, you have to instead say, “OK, we’re going to constantly render our content obsolete” and keep adding stuff. You would encourage hand-me-downs to players rather than restricting trade. You’d literally destroy old areas rather than keep them around. And you’d go ahead and change what newbies start at to compensate — let them start at higher levels, basically.
This is what pen and paper gaming does to handle the situation in long-running campaigns.
But building a pen and paper module is far cheaper than making an expansion. So even if you fully expect to use “exploit it till we can. When it breaks we make another” as your model, you are caught in a horrible trap: you aren’t able to make the stuff fast enough. So what you do is fight a rearguard action, expecting to lose. This is what Blizzard is doing, what EQ is doing, and so on.
If mudflation were the desired effect, then Blizzard would make all items tradeable, because that would speed up mudflation. They don’t do so, because they actually want to regulate mudflation, to stretch out the milking period as long as possible.
The question is whether there are alternative models altogether, which offer the good qualities without the bad. Honestly, I am not sure there are. Even user-content-creation worlds suffer from something analogous to mudflation. There, it’s called “progress” instead, and really, that’s what mudflation is: a society of players mastering their environment, “discovering” new technologies (OK, so these are actually handed them in dollops by the content creators), and applying them to render what was once a challenging environment into something tame.
In the end, the reason why we fight mudflation is because games are predicated on solving challenges; tame environments aren’t as fun. If you break down the list of approaches to managing mudflation that I listed in the other post, you arrive at the conclusion that they represent the following:
- restrict players from helping each other (limit trading, twinking, use soulbinding, etc)
- prevent players from actually improving (limit DPS increases, distract them with cosmetic enhancements, etc)
- beat them down when they do improve (decay, drains, etc)
- force them to do something else (alternate advancement, elder games, etc)
- occasionally make them start over altogether (wipes)
We can turn this around to speculate on what a model not vulnerable to mudflation might look like:
- It would encourage cooperation, twinking, mentoring, and trading.
- It would want players to actually grow much more powerful than the initial game state assumed
- It would allow the gains of the past to be preserved
- It would let you pursue a given path infinitely, rather than making you “switch careers,” because it keeps adding fractal detail
- It would never make the barrier to entry higher because of all this stuff — in fact, ideally, it makes it lower
- It wouldn’t spend all its time adding content at the high end
- It would not assume that the experience has a finite lifespan
It’s rather hard to conceive of a game that can offer this, but it’s easy to see that user-driven worlds might. (Cue someone bringing up Second Life in three, two, one…) The trick for the gaming audience would be to make that act of creation into a game somehow, so that they feel like they are actually being entertained.