Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The spreadsheet behaviour

Every now and again I tend to go off into a little game design tangent. This is partially related to the fact that I have been playing games since the advent of pong (wait, scratch that... it makes me look old... pacman... no... tank wars... no ah to hell with it... I'm old). The rest is occupational hazard (software development) and a inexplicable fascination with game theory.

So today we're going to go off in one of my tangents together and take a look at how the evolution of games in general led to what I like to call spreadsheet behaviour.

Looking back over the decades of games we can fairly clearly see that most games are little more than a simulation that is heavily reliant upon numbers / math. Not surprising of course considering the involvement of computers but we can also note a significant trend towards 'showing the numbers'. This means that in most modern MMORPGs you can clearly see how many hit points you have, how much mana/energy/rage, how much strength, int, stamina etc. etc. and you can literally compile a large spreadsheet of data about your character.

This more often than not leads to so called min-maxing, numbercrunching and theorycrafting where all of a sudden the power of your character isn't determined by using terrain effectively or knowing when to strike and when not to but increasingly becomes a game of allocating stats / talents in the correct way.

Sun tzu's art of war is conveniently discarded in favor of putting the right stats in the right place and the whole process of watching the numbers increase evolves into somewhat of an obsession for players.

This obsession results in a number of unwanted behaviours. Why do people steal kills? Why do people use 3rd party tools to gain advantages? Why do people exploit bugs? Sure, there are those that enjoy making other people's lives miserable but in general this behaviour is motivated by the spreadsheet and for the spreadsheet.

It is no longer the world or the lore that dictates the progression of characters but more and more it becomes a matter of watching the right numbers increase on your spreadsheet.

Unfortunately most game designers tend to play into this behaviour. Games quickly evolve in giving players more numbers and more things to 'spreadsheet' in order to keep the game interesting longer. Expansions are brought in in order to provide more ladders for players to climb, to provide more and better equipment forcing people to re-evaluate their current spreadsheet in favor of a new one.

And this is very much understandable from a game design perspective considering the alternative.

After all, what would happen if the numbers were not visible? What would the result be if repeatedly killing the same mob(s) [grinding] didn't give you any visual representation of improvement and you simply wouldn't know if the grind was doing you any good or not past the 10th orc you just whacked?

It would take away most of the spread-sheet behaviour but in return would put much greater demands on game designers that all of a sudden have to find ways to keep their world interesting without giving tangible feedback like: you've gained 1200xp

The question begs to be asked however: Is the game designer shooting himself in the foot with this spreadsheet orientation? If the only thing that matters in a game is getting the numbers right then what happens to that content that doesn't give the right numbers?

Are game designers trading the dream of an immersive world for more ladders and more spreadsheet math because they're too lazy to build actually engaging content?


LarĂ­sa said...

God, I hate the spreadsheets expectations on me. It's just a bunch of homework which I don't enjoy at all. I feel pretty clueless about what is an upgrade and what isn't. I whish I had a pocket spreadsheet nerd to hand over the decisions to, to help me out... Is there anyone out there who would like a few more things to count? Hint, hint.

Captain The First said...

Hehe, there's a reason I run a guild for solo-ists and other general friendly misfits.

Spreadsheeting is nice because it is relatively simple. You know if you add x agility you get y AP and that's something pretty much anyone can sink their teeth into but in the end it takes away from the actual game and is just a crutch for a developer/designer to avoid spending excessive amounts of time on 'potential' immersion.

I'll have to decline your offer on doing your spreadsheets for you mostly because you'd not be happy with the result (unless you enjoy being optimized for solo instancing...)

Pies said...

To me, what you're saying sounds a lot like "wouldn't the world be a happier place if we didn't study physics?" Maybe, maybe not. The point is that the physics is there, it dictates how things work. You can choose not to learn about it, but it will still affect you.

Hagu said...

Have you considered there are a lot of people like myself who love the spreadsheet?

Lots of people like fast, interactive battles without caring much about stats. This is who FPS console games appeal to. I loathe those sort of games, and like what WoW used to be.

Some people think the spreadsheets, professions, and AH are distractions from the game, but other consider them THE game.

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