I was mentioned in a comment on Google+, and ended up writing a little bit about game feedback as a result. So here it is.
The discussion was on the absence of combat logs (scrolling text windows showing you exact numbers for combat actions) in the new SWTOR MMO. Some folks regret the absence, because they use the logs to optimize what they are doing, and use it as a learning tool. Other players find them a legacy of the text mud days, or a feature that hastens the deconstruction of the entire system and therefore damages the fun factor.
Both sides are right, really. Combat logs are just a form of feedback. The more feedback the system gives you, the more information you have for the process of figuring out how the system works. This then makes the process of optimizing play easier (read that as “getting the results you want from a given input”).
The first thing to realize here is that everything the game shows you, really, is a form of feedback. The locations of chess pieces on a board, the “game state,” is a type of feedback. Numbers floating off the enemy are feedback; the glowy effect trailing a swinging sword is also feedback.
Some forms of feedback are better suited for certain types of information than others.
- Vector and physics information is more easily grasped when presented graphically than when presented as numbers, for example.
- Feedback intended to provide emotional content, such as “this was a good event” versus “a bad event” is typically better conveyed using sound or color. We have a lot of associations with things like major vs minor intervals, specific colors, etc, that are more easily triggered this way than with, say, text.
- Some forms of feedback are more susceptible to noise in the signal than others — they are harder to filter, or might have multiple channels coming at the user at once, making it hard to distinguish between multiple simultaneous messages.
- Some forms of feedback are best conveyed to users by concretizing them, using analogies that better get across the information.
- For the geeks among you, the forms of feedback you use are essentially exercises in solving particular issues in information theory.
Since a player is essentially trying to figure out the rules inside a black box, some form of feedback must be present as the base case, or else the player can press buttons all day long and to them, it looks like nothing is happening whatsoever. In that case, they build a mental model of the black box as being an empty box with some fake buttons on the outside of it. Remember, the player is attempting to arrive at a heuristic for interacting with the model. It does not have to be accurate; it just needs to have reasonable predictive power.
The corollary here is that a deep system with poor feedback will read as shallow to players. For example, it doesn’t matter if your AI NPCs all carefully track twelve levels of anger if they only have three facial animations to display them. Players will instead decode this as three levels. Worse, you can have a situation as in many simulation-based games, where you might have a robust and detailed world simulation that players can’t see, or that feels to them just like a much simply hardcoded state machine (this is the trap that the original ecology in Ultima Online headed into).
OK, so in terms of looking at whether or not to look at combat logs… you have to show the fact that damage is being done at all, of course; that requires at minimum displaying one or both of the current state of the target (aka, its current HP), and the delta that a given action resulted in (aka, the damage done). This is why we tend to see meters (which do state very well, and deltas less so) and floaty numbers (which provide the delta, with higher resolution than a meter does).
But: meters alone have poor granularity and low readability for nuances like source of damage. Combat logs prove full detailed feedback exposing the full depth of the system. And that is why people who care about, say, who did what damage (a whole new type of information) want that feedback.
If you have a shallower combat system you can cap at a shallower amount of feedback. If you have a deep system, your feedback should accommodate revealing that depth or else you may as well cut the depth because people will often literally not be able to tell it is there. In the case of a multiplayer combat scenario, people will obviously know that everyone did something, but they may not be able to tell which delta was associated with which player, leading to arguments over the effectiveness of a given team member.
This can be solved. Every attack could draw a color-coded rope between the player and the target, and tie the delta to that rope, so you could see exactly who did what. It would in fact be a very high-value means of displaying the information, with greater clarity than a rapidly scrolling combat log. But it has two disadvantages: it’s clinical and would work against cool force lightning effects; and it lacks history so you can evaluate it after the fact. But even these things could probably be solved.
This is why combat lags are still around even though they are ugly, and painful to follow in real-time. They satisfice the requirements for players who are invested in investigating the depth of the combat system. They can be captured and analyzed at leisure. They can be used as a raw data flow that can be translated into a variety of more visual tools. This doesn’t mean combat logs are the best feedback design for the purpose, but it explains why the more hardcore (ie depth-invested) players have a desire to have it.
So does it ruin the game and suck the fun out of it to have that sort of information, and the fun “optimized away”?
To pull random perhaps-misremembered quotes out of the book:
“The definition of a successful game is therefore one that teaches everything it has to teach before the player stops playing.”
“Fun is a process; boredom is its destination.”
The fun getting optimized out sounds to me like exactly the expected behavior. The players collaboratively figured out the system. This is not the fault of the feedback mechanism per se; all that does is accelerate or reduce the rate of player progress towards their heuristic. Fun is in the discovery process (barring subtleties like replay as meditation, or the joy in perfect execution of a coordinated strategy which is effectively a different game). If it’s all laid out as a schematic for you, it’s over. Move on. It’s time for the next game (which might very well just be a different system within the same game) or MMO.