Friday, August 7, 2015

001 - There is No Stick

I can't remember the last time I logged into the World of Warcraft, but it's been at least a month.  That doesn't sound too bad - but in March I used in-game gold to buy a year of subscription time, and I haven't actively played since around that time.  I drop in to see how folks are here and there - mostly just because I can.

I still keep up with the news on the game, pretty regularly.  It's something to do.  I haven't been certain whether WoW will become a game I want to play again like I used to, but they news and fansites are interesting.  Of all the things I find posted, I think tweets by Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street, former Lead Developer for WoW at Blizzard, now working at Riot - are some of the most interesting.

The Value of a Carrot
A couple weeks ago, I found a series of Tweets where Greg discussed the influence of feelings of nostalgia on newer content as well as how drawing out content can backfire.  He posed the viewpoint that extending content without some commensurate increase in reward for its completion can drive players to just not bother with it.

This isn't a foreign concept - we all make worth / not worth value judgments nearly a hundred times a day.  Nearly 1/4 of all of my daily value judgments concern when to crack open an ice cold can of Pepsi.  That we extend this same line of thinking to our entertainment choices is only natural.

In college, though, as I sat in my dorm and opened the fridge to see my roommate had left me just one Pepsi - this decision was harder than it is today.  Today if I felt like blowing the cash, I could call PepsiCo and have them unload a truck of the stuff at my door.  I don't have any strong desire for it, but my means have allowed me to discount the scarcity of that RL-shiny that is an ice-cold can of Pepsi.

Coming back to the idea that players have to be rewarded properly to bear with the extension of content, I want you to keep in mind the concept of scarcity in rewards, and how it affects value judgments.  It's true that to a degree, the more rare something is, the more it is sought out just as much as it's true that regardless of a thing's rarity, it still has some intrinsic value.

If you paid attention in World History, you likely heard that Chris Columbus sailed off into the void to find a route to the Indies to trade for highly coveted salt & spices.  You know - the stuff we buy at the grocery now for like $3 or $4.  But we still buy it, and we still enjoy it.  Regardless of how abundant these things have become, they still hold that value.

The Scales of Gaming
In terms of gaming, the concept of carrot & stick isn't new.  I can't think of any other genre of games that has historically made more use of this design philosophy than RPGs.  Balancing these two is the hallmark of well-designed RPG.  The idea being that if it's too much to one side, folks will simply stop playing because it's too hard and not fun - or if it's too much to the other side, folks will stop playing because it's too easy and boring.

It's easy to get caught up in the mathematics of this equation - to accept that gameplay is a collection of trope mechanisms to bring you to the coveted carrot.  But it's not so.  It never was.  Across the landscape and history of gaming, we can remember those gems of a game that had a quality long sought after - replayability.

There is No Stick
Goldeneye & MarioKart & Smash Bros on the N64 with quad-split screens; Halo on the original Xbox at LAN parties.  And today, popular MOBAs like DOTA 2.  These were games where the core gameplay experience and mechanic is the carrot - there is no stick.  And you can enjoy it as much as you like.  Somewhere along the way, meta-game / RPG elements started being added to a lot of these genres.  This progressed slowly from skins and cosmetic upgrades to loadouts and summoner levels, and paragon points.  And now, it seems like the fusion of RPG elements as a "progression-path" has infected every other genre.  This has seemingly come to the point where it's become accepted as rote - that games need these progression elements to make playing the game rewarding.

Those days before sticks entered the calculus of the philosophical question in the fore of every game designer's mind, "What makes it fun?" have begun to slip beyond the horizon of memory.

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