Game Design: “Newton’s Third Law of MMOs” or “I love playing MMOS, I Just Hate What I Have Available to Play Right Now”
Spinks has a great post up on what makes choice fun in video games. Spinks postulates that choices that have unclear outcomes, no outcomes or unwanted outcomes are not fun. I completely agree, but I think this is because of the inseparable nature of choice and impact.
Newton’s Third Law of MMOs
Following Newton’s third law of motion, every action has an equal or opposite reaction. The world would rip apart at the seams if this rule was violated, for it forms the most fundamental of the natural laws. When translated into the game world, every choice should have an equal impact. Whenever this impact is unwanted, unclear or non-existent, the game world starts to lose its coherence and relevance for us.
I believe that choice and impact are conjoined twins, inseparable from birth, and forever married. Choice and impact are interlinked inseparably. Every choice should have a measurable impact. No impact, or a not favorable impact makes the game less fun. When you choose to fire that spell, the immediate impact should be the monster being set on fire. When you choose to mount up, the impact should be faster movement speed. But these are examples of choices and their impact at the most basic level. This concept is then extrapolated throughout the game at the middle and macro-level.
Perhaps the clearest recent example of a choice creating a massive dent of an impact in the game world is the binary choice you have to make in the first Chapter 1 of The Witcher 2. Each of the two choices have completely divergent paths, with different quest hubs, locations, NPCs, missions and monsters. You would have to play the game twice to fully take in the whole world, because if you don’t go back to the choice after finishing the game once, you have effectively only played half the game. I honestly believe this is what made The Witcher 2 a lot more fun. The choices you made had an immediate and powerful impact on the game world, and the world reacted, and acted, differently to you based on your past actions.
This is not to say The Witcher 2 was without flaws, or it didn’t have choices that actually went against this principle. For all of it’s wonder, The Witcher 2 suffered from unclear choices. A dialogue option that seemed perfectly harmless and in tune with a desired outcome would actually result in a completely unwanted outcome. The impact of the choice, therefore, would be unwanted, rendering the choice, and by larger extension, the game, not a lot of fun for players.
But perhaps nothing is as irritating as no impact for your choices. Mass Effect 2 stands out as a classic example of this. Some here may disagree, but aside from different animations playing out different versions of the event the Renegade/Paragon system had next to no lasting impact on the main narrative. Pressing the right mouse button may send that NPC hurtling through the window, or pressing the left button may spare his life, but in the larger context of things, it meant nothing. One could argue that the impact is immediate, i.e. the fate of the NPC, but the choice should have more of an effect than a simple binary output matched exactly with your binary input.
I love playing MMOS, I Just Hate What I Have Available to Play Right Now
Extrapolating from this admittedly weak example, MMOs are especially guilt of this phenomenon, where the choices you make have next to no impact on the game world. If you accept a quest to kill ten rats and save the town granary from being overrun, the the quest will subsequently be offered to a hundred others after you, as it has been given to a hundred before you, and even yourself, should you choose to undertake the same mission as an alt. The impact in this case is masked via the amount of gold, items or experience given. But given that the central premise of the game is of you being a hero, it sucks that your choice for helping that granary hero has had absolutely zero impact on the game world. Similarly, after acquiring the best gear in game, and teaming up with 39 of your best friends, you have taken on the might of Ragnaros and his minions. Yet the very next week, he is back in his lair, complete with the lowest form of trash mobs, and as one of the guardians of said world, you have effectively had no impact on the game world. I understand that the farming mechanism has become a steeple of MMO progression and longevity, but that does not absolve MMOs from violating this choice-impact mechanic.
This may be part of the reason Cataclysm was so well received, and why the phasing mechanism was lauded. After six years of the same rats being killed over and over again, and the same bosses being farmed, the world has finally moved on, and although the impact on the world was both through player actions (the end of the Lich King) and external factors (Horde invading Northshire), the impact of the choices you had made in the last six years had a visible and tangible manifestation in the game world. Of course this change was only reflected in the vanilla zones and The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King content was left untouched. But that is a topic for another argument.
All of this boils down to my recent detachment from the MMOs that I cherished and played for so long, because the choices I made had only personal rewards and the larger impact remained to be seen. At the moment, none of the MMO’s installed on my machine pique my curiosity. When playing them, regardless of the choice I make, the game isn’t fun, because I simply don’t care about the impact. Because the fact of the fact of the matter is, I love playing MMOS, I just hate what I have available to play right now.