Saturday, 27 August 2011

Optimising the fun into gaming

I was intrigued by a comment Nils made here yesterday suggesting that by optimising I'm removing the fun from playing Diablo 3. (Not offended by the way Nils, I'm glad to have the discussion).

You see if I had picked any of a number of alternative ways of playing no one would have the temerity to suggest that my way isn't the One True Fun Way. If I roved the world looking for photogenic screenshot opportunities or concentrated on collecting minipets or made mosaic art by dropping items on the ground in tasteful arrangements I don't think anyone would come here and say "That's not fun."

So what is it about the optimisation process that draws this reaction?

I think there's a number of elements.

It's about maths. Lots of people really don't like maths. I do. When I'm bored with nothing to do I sometimes work out long division or squares or other mathematical puzzles in my head just to keep my mind busy. I appreciate this isn't usual. But it's clear from reading gaming theorycraft sites that many of us enjoy the maths of a game just for the sake of it. It's another aspect, enjoyable to some, that is actually a lost opportunity to those who never appreciate it. It's as if someone plays but never talks to another player or never takes a screenshot or never stops to appreciate how their character looks or never reads the lore. None of that is mandatory but none of those things are mutually exclusive and I would argue there's a richer experience if you appreciate all of them.

It's about immersion. When if an awesome legendary axe drops you find yourself thinking "shall I make an Axe Barb?" I can see it's disconcerting to see other players are looking at the drop thinking "woot! £3.50!" I think though there's a level beyond living off the land gameplay and that's the trading game. Let's suppose Player A finds an awesome Axe and makes an Axe Barb. Player B finds an awesome axe, knows that the market is over-pricing axes right now, sells the Axe on the gold market for 10,000 gold, turns the gold into £6, uses the £6 to buy an awesome mace and uses the mace to make a better Barb than player A. Who is having more fun? And I don't just mean because the character is more powerful but the process itself seems more fun to me. I do see that it's less immersive but I think in this case immersion is not the same as fun. Besides is twinking a hand-me-down to an alt really immersive? When did Conan's big brother ever turn up and hand him an uber sword that he had spare? Surely all trading is not immersive including trading to yourself via the shared bank.

And lastly and perhaps most importantly it's about competition. When some of us theorycraft it forces other players into one out of three positions all of which are detrimental to them if they don't like theorycrafting. 1) they can ignore the theorycrafters and the cookie cutters and just be less effective than us. That's probably going to be rather an unpleasant option in D3 because D3 will inherit a huge amount of its players from WoW and WoW players are very suspicious of people not pulling their weight. Anyone who seems underpowered is going to find people being rude to them in public groups. 2) They can follow the theorycraft but in the early stages of a game theorycraft to the non-mathematician is gruellingly horrible. When a game ages you get short pithy synopses that show you all the maths you need to know in a page. Early on however the theorycrafters aren't sure yet so you get 20 page discussions of the attack speed formulae. Generally people won't summarise anything until the facts are established by extensive time-consuming testing and peer review. 3) they can figure out the best way to play by themselves while ignoring other theorycrafters. There's a couple of problems with this. Peer review is immensely important. Theorycrafting is very time-consuming, I remember hitting a zombie outside Hell Rogue Camp 1000 times and writing down each result back when I was helping figure out D2. It took me about 6 hours to conduct and write up my experiment and it was for something rather obscure (I forget what). Even the best theorycrafter in the world doesn't solve every problem. Plus if you make a mistake it gets incorporated into your dataset and is very hard to find for yourself.

Few things we've seen in gaming before will be quite as competitive as D3 money-making. We're going head to head with sophisticated corporations and huge businesses - perhaps even the Russian mafia - that want to make fortunes doing this and what's more almost everyone will be doing it. I realise there are a few purists out there but most regular players if they get a Bow worth £25 and their character does not use bows will sell it. Some will even sell it if their character does use bows. So the supply of goods in general is close to infinite because players will find more decent loot than the AH system can possibly sell which will drive the price of a  bow which is good but not the best down and down. So ambitious achiever players like me plotting to maximise income are taking money out of the pockets of other players.

And are we also taking fun away?

I think so. Clearly if a fairly casual inferno player finds a mid range legendary he's going to get a lot less for it because of intense farming players. He's going to be less effective at selling it because of auction house manipulators. And it's going to be less exciting to say "Wow, omg, I found a Windforce!" if people like me are finding 10 Windforces a day and they're worth 30p.

But I'm not optimising the fun out of gaming. I'm optimising the fun into my gaming and out of yours. That's competition, baby.


  1. You are right. And that's just the way it is.

    I'm not really against optimizing. I just think that the developers should force the players to keep the optimization process within the game.

    If the perfect way of action is not determined by thoughts about tactics/strategies/etc, but by gathering and processing extensive statistics, that's fun only for a few people. Many players crunch numbers already in their jobs, you know.

  2. Hmm, how do developers force players to keep the optimization process within the game?

    Even games like Chess and Football have extensive libraries of books about tactics.

    I don't accept that mastering D3 is just about processing statistics although it's certainly part of it. I don't even think what I posted about pushing to the end game as quickly as possible is about processing statistics.

    I don't think I'm altogether right and you're altogether wrong. I deliberately made this post somewhat bullish and I'll admit I didn't entirely feel comfortable with the message. I think there is more to gaming than just snatching fun from others which I'll explore with reference to d3 in a blog post soon.

  3. I don't think there are going to be any fairly casual inferno players, tbh. And also, this aspect of D3 is being deliberately designed to appeal to the most hardcore competitive players. There's no reason you can't have a game designed to your tastes.

    I'm not too worried about this optimisation happening with D3 (although I agree with your argument), it'll easy enough to avoid those PUGs if you are a casual player who isn't too worried about the AH except as an unexpected perk from a lucky drop. (Does make me wonder if there's anything devs can do to encourage the player base to be more resilient to being dominated by the most competitive players tho.)

    It may affect the game's longevity for non-hardcore players, but tbh you need to be pretty hardcore to want to play any game for 5+ years anyway.

  4. Extremely nicely said, Stabs. Hopefully this post will be indexed quickly so it can begin to counter the "optimize the fun out of games" Google search results (of which there are many, including posts by Tobold going back to 2009).

    I am not especially a theorycrafter in videogames, but I remember pouring over my D&D books for hours and hours back in the day, spending about 6-7 hours of research per hour of actual game play. The best thing D&D ever did IMO was when they introduced the gestalt option in 3.5 - it let you essentially level up two classes simultaneously, such that you could be Barb 12/Sorc 12 and have all the abilities of both. Not only did this let 2-3 player parties actually fight "normal" monsters of their level, it made my pupils dilate at the min/maxing possibilities. I spent more time researching than playing those characters, but the research was as fun as playing to me. Just imagining what you could do... that feeling is the best.

  5. About the broader phrase "Optimizing the fun out". It usually doesn't mean what you say here. It depicts a problem for game design.

    Extreme example, if WoW made all all PvE high-end rewards available only via PvP arena, they would make many PvE players optimize the fun out of it. The majority of PvE players wouldn't like to do arena for this stuff, but a majority would still do it - for a time.
    Since they wouldn't have fun, they'd quit the game soon after, and that's why it is a game design mistake.

    The lesson for the designer is that you need to make sure that your rewards align with what players like to do, because players will optimize the fun out of your game otherwise.

  6. I think it's pretty commonly used in the way I've talked about here, for instance:

  7. Ok, in that case there are two common ways to say it. One is directed at the players, the other at the developers. Since I, generally, believe that it's stupid to blame players of anything, I usually talk about the devs when I talk about optimizing the fun out of things.

    By the way, I just made a post related to yours.

  8. I think something that devs need to realize maybe, is that things like detours/timesinks or unbalances are not the worst thing in a game; they actually need to have their place. if you strive for a 100% efficiency, you take a lot away from the player: for ex. ways to work around the issues himself, creativity in solution finding, choice.

    it's a very tricky subject; on some level we need a certain balance, but there's also a think like too much optimization. you remove meaningful choices if you optimize everything for the player.

    see also:
    in case you've never read it.

  9. That's the problem with iteration. You tweak a minute part of the game making it less tedious. Then another one.

    Eventually you get this game:

    10 Press any key to start
    20 Print "You Win!!!"
    30 Go to 10

    Thanks to the link to Psychochild's blog. I think we're all on the same page here (and on a different one to most professional games companies). Perhaps that's why I have such high hopes for Psychochild's latest project - Storybricks. It seems to start with an understanding of fun and then work out the game as opposed to starting with an expensive IP then trying to shoehorn in fun.

  10. The concept of "fun" varies from player to player. Someone likes farming for items, others like playing the AH game flipping stuff and so on. As long as you are having fun and you're a honest player (no cheats, no scams, etc) I don't see any real problem.

    Now... for what concerns the "making money in D3" I don't really think it will happen for 99.9% of the players. The reason is simple: we will be all on the same server, no more realms with different markets/economies.

    Flipping will be hard. Finding amazing deals will be super-hard. We will compete with 24h/24 players who will spend days on this game. Low-priced items will be purchased and flipped in less than a second.

    Few VERY hardcore players will make some decent money. Everyone else will MAYBE make some money by selling lucky very-rare items.

    As said on other blogs, there are already too many guides, forums and websites trying to teach how to make money with D3. By the time we will be able to play the final game (december?) almost everone will be super-aware of AH tricks.

    Still... I think it's awesome we have the chance to get some real money from a game we would play anyway. Much better than playing the WoW AH for virtual gold.