Your Next: Can't Design Won't Design

I couldn't design my way out of a paper bag, but that doesn't stop me having opinions.

This week, I have discovered the true horror of being a grown up. While I have the means to purchase a PlayStation 4 and Bloodborne, I’m not going to because it would be irresponsible. It is with a single, dignified tear rolling down my cheek I type this, a stoic icon of duty.

That has nothing to do with anything, I just wanted to share it with you to demonstrate how brave and remarkable I am.

Bloodborne, like Dark Souls before it, knows exactly what kind of game it is and every element of it is a cog in an elegant machine. The games aren’t for everyone, but in terms of design they are masterful, and have probably redefined the RPG for the next generation.

As you may be aware, I am a massive nerd for game design; it colors my thinking toward certain games to the extent that I need to be aware of it to be genuinely critical of the experience as a whole. It’s a little silly, but so is being a massive nerd for anything, so I find it’s best to just like what you like.

As a product of this pursuit I find myself gorging on text and video scoured from various sources to learn more and slake my incorrigible lust for the topic (a far cry from my admirable restraint at spending $500 to play one game. I know you’re proud of me; I’m proud of me too).

While picking through the strangely underrepresented topic of MMO design, I regularly come across a simple idea expressed something like: ‘Making an MMO is like making several different games all at once’. Now, I’ll be the first to admit the limits of my understanding, and it’s possible I’ve taken this statement the wrong way, but I can’t help but feel this is exactly the wrong approach when trying to create any complex system.

Identifying core systems as discrete entities rather than elements of the same pattern goes against some basic principles of game design. The way I see it this approach directly contributes to several common flaws in MMOs.

We know that the core is king in any game. Whether that’s jumping for a Mario game or gun play in Counter Strike, when the core is good, everything else needs to complement it. If it doesn’t complement the core, chances are it’s not a good fit for the game. So what happens when you try and create a variety of core experiences and systems to complement them? You get a big mess, and only yourself to blame.

Any game that tries to balance abilities for PvE and PvP knows this pain, and that’s just one small part of a wider issue. Take World of Warcraft for example, since it is so universally loved and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad thing about it, raiding and arena are mutually incompatible. Not to say they’re not fun, and tons of people love the hell out of them, but they can’t coexist meaningfully (yes, yes you awfully interesting ‘the point of games is to have fun’ people, but we’re not talking about games, we’re talking about game design, and game design wasn’t designed to be fun because it’s not a game).

For all practical purposes the two game modes are separate pursuits, which is all well and good in an ‘MMO endgame’ kind of way. The issue is that neither complements the other. In fact, the existence of the other detracts from the experience of either. Unfortunately, they’re stuck with each other, and poor Blizzard is in the middle jerry-rigging mechanics to scaffold the wobbling towers they created.

I’m not sure if there ever was a simple solution to this, but I am sure that approaching the design in the way they did created problems that cannot be solved. While no system is perfect, this is a trap that is easily avoided for most.

Is it the case that your standard-issue MMO is too big and complex for a more integrated design to be an option? Since one game that suffers from this less than most is EVE Online, I would have to say no. Despite offering what, in practice, is a much broader range of activities than many MMOs, those activities are woven together in such a way as to complement its variety rather than work against it.

EVE obviously has the advantage of having a setting and interface that can support a lot more information, so there are fewer obstacles to implementing variety. On the other hand, I doubt your average MMO player would complain if the complexity dial got turned down from 11. What makes the game stand out to me is that it very deliberately weaves its systems together, it knows exactly what it wants to be and everything is built to facilitate a strikingly simple goal.

One of the core features of EVE is that everything affects everything else, always. No matter how small the ripple, the butterfly effect is palpable and touches everything.

This principle seems like such a no-brainer for an MMO, doesn’t it? Am I taking crazy pills, or is that the whole point? It’s easy to romanticize the idea of sandbox, but if you’re going to have an ultimate goal for an MMO that has to be it, surely? I’m getting too close to my default rant, so I’ll move on.

By compartmentalizing and segregating players we are not working toward a solution to the problem of variety, we’re sidestepping it.

In a post ‘WoW-Clone’ world, I expect this principle to go right in the bin, especially as the new generation is not afforded the luxury of investors chasing the billion dollar cash cow. Sandbox-lite is featured heavily on the new menu, so I’ve got my hopes set on some interesting patterns of interactivity, rather than isolated and competing pockets of activity.

Now I’m going to get back to playing EVE and watching videos of Pillars of Eternity as I spend my life not playing Bloodborne.


Tweets While Not Playing Bloodborne


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