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Playing the Numbers: Why many RPGs fail to entertain

I was feeling in a slightly MMORPG-ish mood, so I took EverQuest 2 for another spin before my free trial ran out. I had forgotten just how beautiful the game was. Once you get over the squat appearance of the characters, everything's beautifully textured into one hell of a fantasy land. So why is it that I can't seem to enjoy this game?

As I flit about with my EQ2 newbling faery Fury, slowly killing hordes of level 6 Goblins with assorted DoTs, I realized the fundamental problem. It's because - as far as games go - most RPGs are pretty weak in terms of game mechanic strength.

Lets say we're making our own roleplaying game. We want to represent real things with statistics. We want these statistics interact with eachother in such a way as to produce some kind of enjoyable experience. We decide to implement an element of chance, and so we implement some random number generators via dice.

Now, lets make this game of ours fun. We tinker with the mechanics for hours. We create a number of opposed dice roll tests to see which of our pencil and paper protagonists overpower the other. We create fabulous tables to resolve encounters, critical hits, and loot drops. In almost no time at all, we've cobbled together a functional roleplaying game.

Now, it comes time to playtest the game. We gather a bunch of friends around a table and show them how to play the game. We generate characters, we start spinning a yarn about what those characters are up to and, from the time to time, we actually use the game mechanic we create.

We roll dice to see if our characters overcome monsters, traps, and other pitfalls. We ooh and ah over natural 20s obliterating unstoppable juggernauts. We laugh when a miserable roll causes a stuffy friend's character to lop off his own foot.

A good time is had by all, and we promise to come back and do it again some time. It would seem that roleplaying games work at generating enjoyment.

In that case, why can't I seem to enjoy EverQuest 2?

Lets adapt our new RPG to be a computer RPG. To do this, we translate all our fabulous game mechanics into the game. We design it to be a solo experience because the computer gives us the power to let players play games by themselves. We load it up with good graphics and sound effects, and set it loose upon the world.

Then we sit down to play our game, and a strange thing happens.

At first, we enjoy ourselves. It's a real kick seeing the graphical personification of our characters out there in a virtual world, fighting graphical personifications of things trying to kill them.

After awhile, we notice that the entire goal becomes advancing our character to become more and more powerful. We tone out all the multimedia splendor and the story and focus just on killing things.

A little later, we stop caring about our characters. They're nothing more than big batteries in which numbers accumulate, after all. We roll up alternate characters constantly trying to find the "best" one to "beat" the game.

Finally, we realize there's no game to "beat" here. It's all about moving numbers around with some extremely simple choices that were trivial to master.

That's it. That's the entire game. It sucks.

The tabletop RPG worked out fine. What the hell happened? What failed to make the translation from our fun pencil and paper game to computer form?

The short, not all inclusive answer, is this: Friends. Our lovely computer RPG is sorely lacking all the chip-munching friends that made the tabletop RPG fun in the first place. There's no longer anyone to titter when you fail an important roll, you're just sitting there by yourself failing to play a game, and no one cares.

The longer, more inclusive answer, is that computer games can be entertaining, but you're sure not going to pull it off with a pack of numbers alone.

What a computer RPG needs to do is be more than just a basic RPG mechanic - which is really nothing more than statistic tracking and situational resolution. A good computer RPG needs to bring a fun game.

There's a lot of genuinely fun game ideas out there. For example:
  • Provide the player with a wide battery of highly-influential choices that take time to master. This would appeal to those who enjoy strategy.
  • Other computer RPGs actually add a gameplay element, such as puzzles and/or twitch. While that may offend the purists, that does add the challenge that numbers and rolls alone can't. This can appeal to a great deal of different gamers depending on what is added.
  • The last resort is simply a really good and compelling story. At that point, the player isn't so much playing the game as they are verifying their involvement in it. (If anything, the RPG mechanic in these kinds of games is in danger of getting in the way of progressing the story.)
Too many computer RPG designers think that graphics, statistics, and random number generators alone are enough. I'm getting really tired of that. (It makes me wonder why they're employed designing games and I'm not employed, period.)

I've often praised EverQuest 2, and for good reason: it's a very technically accomplished game. Furthermore, unlike most MMORPGs, it succeeds as a good game for little awhile because it's pretty and has a mechanic that's deep enough to take some time to master. So the underlying focus of this Blog entry has been in figuring out why I can't seem to enjoy this game.

Now I think I figured it out. The casual-friendliness pretty much sinks this game for the same reason our theoretical tabletop RPG couldn't make it as a computer RPG:
  • There's not much socialization to be found. First, the world is huge, so you don't run across many players. Second, the casual-friendly balance lead to solo play being quite lucrative and consequently there's little incentive to deal with other players' bullshit. Without socialization, all that's left to do is play the game.
  • The game mechanic is restrained in overall depth by a desire to make it easy for casual gamers to participate. As a core gamer, one who has played more than his share of MMORPGs like EverQuest 2 before, I've long since mastered the majority of what it had to offer. Having played quite a bit of EverQuest 2 in the past, what it had unique from other MMORPGs was largely exhausted.
  • The last line of defense, a compelling story to partake of, fails because the stories in MMORPGs are relegated mostly to the background.
If player interaction or gameplay mechanic were made worthwhile in that game, maybe I'd have a reason to resubscribe. Until then, I'll just continue to watch them grind out expansions to the much-more-lucrative casual gaming market. Those poor, commercially successful, bastards.
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