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?