Thursday, 29 August 2013

Still conflating PvP and Griefing?

My previous post wasn't clear enough. People are struggling to understand my position that issues of PvP and griefing/bullying are entirely separate. My bad; let's try again.

One of the points I made was that in any discussion about PvP gameplay, there is invariably an interjection with talk of griefing or bullying. However, these are quite distinct topics.

I will use the terms bullying or harassment as they are much better than griefing which is fast becoming my most hated word in that nobody can agree on  what it is.

Bullying comes in the forms of verbal (voice chat), written (text chat) and game actions (killing, spoiling). Game actions could be considered the equivalent of real life physical bullying. I think we can agree that therefore bullying is not simply an extension of PvP, but that PvP can be leveraged in the act of bullying.

Whenever bullying gets brought up in a discussion about how PvP gameplay should be implemented the waters are muddied. People should not be asking "What can be done to PvP to prevent/reduce bullying?" They should be asking "What can be done to prevent/reduce bullying in game?" If we just think about preventing bullying in terms of hobbling different game aspects then we end up with a blunted experience and a poor solution. Instead we should be talking about how we can identify bullying behaviour and prevent it across the entire game; a different conversation entirely.

Previously there were calls on the Elite: Dangerous forums for a separate PvE group system. If we are charitable and assume people wanted this because they didn't like bullying behaviour then they are misguided because it would not come close to preventing it. There would still be huge scope for other types of bullying and even other game actions which could spoil the experience for other players. It may placate those people with a bizarre like for NPC combat but not human combat, however ;)

I searched for the terms "bullying" and "harassment" in thread titles on the forums and, surprisingly, turned up no results. If people are genuinely concerned about in game bullying then I implore them to start specific threads and engage with the developers that way. It should be a lot more productive and you are far more likely to get answers to your questions.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Elite Dangerous: WARNING! May contain pirates

Another one of my threads on the Frontier Forums devolved in to a PvP vs PvE shouting match. I don't mind much because they're fun (especially since I put some of the more uninteresting and annoying people on my ignore list*) but I can understand if some people find it tedious. Luckily, if people don't like it, they can just not read it! Isn't technology wonderful?

This made me think that perhaps it would be good to explain my position in the debate in relation to what appears to be two extremes.

First, we must avoid the fallacy of the middle ground, better known as the argument to moderation. Whether you like it or not, sometimes one side is just right and the other one is just wrong. It frustrates me when people who enter a debate and look to find the middle ground as they are not interested in truth, just not upsetting people. Unfortunately many Internet forum moderators fall in to this trap when dealing with conflict.

So, are the PvPers right to bemoan the existence of some cuddly people who don't like to engage in as much combat with other humans? Are the PvEers right to complain that their game will be ruined by psychopaths?

I think I am inclined towards the PvP crew simply because the PvE position is inconsistent and bordering on delusional.

The old Elite games were single player and featured ship-to-ship combat. The good news for fans of these single-player games is that this game mode is still supported; you can just remain in a single player group. However, the unique selling point of Elite Dangerous is that it now features a persistent, evolving world occupied by other players. Now it is possible to engage with fellow humans in exactly the same way we did with NPCs in previous games.

It has been argued by some PvE players that they want to get on with the task of mining, exploring or trading without the hassle of unwanted combat. However, this completely ignores the fact that they will most likely be operating in areas that contain dangerous NPCs that will engage them. To say they are happy to fight NPCs but not players is totally bizarre.

Once this objection is raised then there follows a bait and switch. All of a sudden the conversation will move to griefing which actually has very little to do with regular PvP. This conversation can get really ugly when there are various definitions of griefing being used and people usually just end up talking past each other. The only useful definition of griefing describes (hopefully) very rare events, whereas some of the more sensitive people seem to think any unwanted PvP is griefing (I kid you not).

Put simply: Elite is a space trading and combat sim. It's in the name of the genre for goodness-sake.

* Let me be clear: putting someone on my ignore list is a last resort. I never remove voices of disagreement from my feed simply because they disagree (I relish the debate!) However, as you'll find on every Internet forum, there exist individuals who can only be described (politely) as intelectually dishonest. These are the people who, instead of addressing any points or arguments you make, try to help correct typos or spelling mistakes, attack strawman positions or who quote you out of context so they can feel smart. And also the people who, once you've eviscerated all of their shaky reasoning for their position, declare everything "subjective" and everyone is entitled to an opinion. These people aren't interested in actually discussing the merits of anything, they just want to score points by being dishonest or obtuse.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Path of Least Resistance

Where I discover I was wrong to consider this a straight forward question of player choice/freedom versus designer dictat.

The Elite Dangerous Design Decision Forum is a forum system set up by Frontier Developments to capture the suggestions and feedback from the Kickstart project backers who pledged to that level.

Since becoming a member of the DDF I have become aware of a bit more detail surrounding the thoughts of the developers and some of the forum members. Much of it is very interesting, with regular new topics appealing for ideas and thoughts on different aspects of the game design.

A great deal of what gets posted is blue-sky thinking. Much of it is simply ideas, thrown out for others to consider. Some people go in to a bit more depth, really fleshing out their ideas and so give their fellow members something to really contemplate. Most of it is quite good!

One concept that has been described by the developers, and repeatedly referenced by fellow forum members is the path of least resistance. In the context of the forum and game development it has been used as the metaphor for the behaviour a game player exhibits when presented with multiple choices. Each choice has some value of resistance (effort required) and so the observation is that players (on average) tend to take the easiest route.

What we're talking about here is not some law of reality, but an observation which is supposedly supported by statistically significant data. What evidence there is for this I am not sure, but I am willing to accept it for the purposes of this post. If anybody does have some interesting research which relates specifically to games then I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Anybody who has read A Treatise of Human Nature will know that Hume identified a particularly egregious form of sloppy thinking and elucidated the is-ought problem (examples to follow, don't worry). There is striking parallel between the factual/moral non-sequitur in the naturalistic fallacy, for example, and the factual/aesthetic proclamations about about certain player behaviours (particularly the path of least resistance). So, in the absence of some newly discovered propositional logic we can move on from the idea that there is some inherent rule of game design hidden in there somewhere.

My first example would be the statement "in nature, animals to not give consent to copulation; therefore rape if morally acceptable". Most people would disagree with this. You may even say it's obviously a nonsense statement, but please considering my next example.

How about the statement "in nature, there are no homosexual animals; therefore homosexuality is morally wrong"? Ignoring the fact that there does exist strong evidence that there are gay animals, this has been a staple of irrational bigotry for as long as it has existed and has been taken very seriously, even though it's a non sequitur just as with the first example.

So back to our topic: what drives design decisions about features or mechanics in relation to the path of least resistance? As usual we find that it is subjective and value driven. In fact, two schools of thought emerged on the forum, one of them being championed by myself.

The first was a libertarian principle that valued player choice and freedom (as long as it didn't infringe on the gaming rights of others). I still hold this position in a very general sense. The second was an authoritarian principle which assumed the developer had an obligation to prescribe game play and players should submit to the designer's vision. However, I have come to the realisation that I was wrong to think that it is as black and white as I originally claimed. Both positions ignore real issues.

The authoritarian position is based on the assumption that something needs to be done about player behaviour and that the designer is the one who must take steps to prevent the existence of a path of least resistance. Why is this assumption made? The reason often cited is fun i.e. if players take the easy path then they miss out on fun.

The fun argument is weak and a thought experiment can show why. Imagine a top-down shooter where you had to kill hoards of Allen Stroud clones. We'll call it Allen Breed. The designer/developer decides that a mere 100 pixels from the starting point on level 1 is a portal which takes the player straight to the game's closing credits and an epic high score. Does this "feature" take the fun out of the game? In short, no, it can't. The player can simply restart the game and choose not to use the portal and then proceed in a more normal fashion. The amount of fun in the game is preserved.

You may try and object to this conclusion by saying that if you jump to the end then you've made the whole game meaningless. But this argument admits that the overriding value of the game is to complete it. It assumes that seeing the closing credits is more worthwhile than the journey and experience to get there. That would imply that playing the game is not fun or even un-fun (a chore). If playing the game is a chore then rationally the most fun thing to do is not play the game, or use the shortcut. It suggests the game is badly designed. The thought experiment works no matter what the destination of the shortcut: the end credits, just before the last boss, 50% through the game.

But the fun argument is even weaker because it is based upon the assertion that designers should be dictating what players should be doing to have fun because they know better (hence why they're in the job). This has been the prevailing attitude for most of the existence of video gaming. However, recently there has been a move towards empowering the player to find fun wherever they want and the open/sandbox game was born. When it comes to player demand, the likes of WoW, GTA and Minecraft are top dogs. Personally, I want to see Elite Dangerous as an open game where players can discover and make their own fun, without adversely effecting other players. Once you consider who it is that actually decides whether something is fun or not, you soon realise that perhaps the designer isn't as responsible as originally thought.

So, if fun can't tell us what to do about the path of least resistance then what can? I'm leaning towards popular vote. If players like it then keep it. If they don't then cut it. This includes features that allow some players to adversely affect or ruin other players' games. However, the fact some players don't like a shortcut or think it morally objectionable doesn't warrant cutting it if they have the option not to employ it. That would be some players enforcing their ideology on others like the Saudi Arabian morality police enforcing a strict dress code on women.

There exists an argument that a feature that benefits a player and gives them an advantage necessarily hurts other players' games unless they make same use of that feature. But this is less enlightening than you may think because it is a truism. Having multiple monitors conveys an advantage, a certain controller will have an edge over others, young people have faster reflexes, unemployed or retired people have more time on their hands. There is always going to be inequality; that's a fact of reality. The question for the designer is therefore one of degree. I'm not so sure the Saudi Arabian morality police are really put out by having to deal with sexual urges brought on by seeing women's hair. But I'm sure that greedy and careless short selling of stock can harm our pension funds. You may disagree.

At the end of the day, given that modern multiplayer games are extremely complex and inherently asymmetric, we need to consider that removing any and all paths of least resistance may be impossible. I'm reminded of competitive Street Fighter players who would converge on optimal strategies which would be employed to such an extent that battles became those of physical stamina rather than competing styles. This was until somebody discovered a more optimal strategy and dominated until everybody else adopted. Check out Episode 7 of Game Developer's Radio for an interesting discussion on asymmetric design and balance, plus some interesting links.

The only recommendation I could give to a game designer is to be wary of using the path of least resistance as shorthand for good game design. It would be futile and sometimes even harmful to pursue the extermination of easy routes; sacrificing interesting and useful features on the alter of fairness, a cruel and elusive goddess.