Raph Koster has a post up that seems to explain why I like DDO so much compared to other games. Provided you squint at it a little bit, and relabel some of the nodes. It’s called “Narrative is not a Game Mechanic”.
He develops a picture language that has yellow circles as user inputs, black boxes to represent the ‘black box’ of game mechanics, and blue squares to represent feedback. All of these are necessary to have a game:
Cut the input, and you have a screensaver.
Cut the problem inside the black box, and you have a slideshow.
Cut the feedback, and you have something ridiculously confusing that no one will tolerate.
You can diagram the structure of a game thusly, with the size of the boxes representing the complexity or weight of the components. Here’s a sample.
Feedback can take the form of narrative action: point the camera at a window and press A and you get a fast cutscene of Batman gliding off the rooftop just ahead of the explosion! That’s a small input, a small black box, and a big feedback.
Raph points out that this leads to a problem: The narrative cutscene gets old pretty fast. You’ve seen it before. Due to a well known process known as “hedonic adaptation” fun things lose some of their fun through repetition. (Or is that systematic desensitization?)
Ok, most of the MMO’s I’ve played don’t rely all that heavily on narrative feedback. Yeah, there’s some cutscenes, and a nice death animation, but the big feedback comes in the loot. And I think that has the same problem, if a bit slower. What turned me off of EQ2 was exactly this: Going into an instance with a group had absolutely zero focus on the black box. The inputs were well determined and done as quickly as possible to get the loot. But the loot was random, so mostly you didn’t get the loot that you wanted (How many times did I do Vault of Eternal Slumber, never to get Praetor’s Guard?)
The simple terminology for this is “I hate grinding”.
Ok, so most of the instances I run in DDO don’t drop anything I actually upgrade to. But they are interesting. One reason for this is that the game system itself is interesting. And that’s true because it’s D&D. It was developed to be interesting on the tabletop, where there is no cinematic cutscenes. Although there is, to be fair, loot. Well, at least sometimes. My daughter’s game is notoriously lean on the loot.
We get rewards: success. Sometimes its obvious what to do, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes (in DDO) we have to try again, or snatch things back from the Precipice of Wipe. That’s just darn fun when you can pull that off.
Granted there is also the more visceral, media-based feedback: Holding a dance contest in the middle of the dungeon to see which demon is the best dancer ranks right up there. It’s just fun to see them dancing when Karayasama uses Otto’s (Theoretically) Resistable Dance. It’s also fun to see which outfits show off the fabulous red hair to best advantage. But those sorts of things existed in EQ2, as well. They probably aren’t quite enough to drive continuing subscription on their own, and they aren’t game mechanics.
The striking thing to me is that as black boxes go, DDO isn’t very black at all, maybe 18% neutral gray. At least to me, the D&D mechanics are second nature and public. There is a die roll, but that’s the only element that is unpredictable. Everything else is based on mechanics from the tabletop RPG, where how everything works is spelled out.
Yet, it’s still fun. Interest comes from not knowing what the mobs will do, and not knowing whether your spells or swings will miss, hit, or crit. Reacting in the moment is the joy.
The past few Mondays, Karayasama, Johnson (the cleric) and Marty (my tank with thief tendencies), have been running instances in Sentinels of Stormreach. And we have been tearing them up on Normal difficulty. Maybe it’s time to move to Hard? Our ease surprises me a bit. Different groups have had more difficulty with these instances, particularly the Bazaar. (Remember how I mentioned the Precipice of Wipe?). We blasted through it. Not that it wasn’t complex, it was just that we handled it.
Does this mean we’re going to get bored with DDO and stop playing? Well, it might. We play a lot less. Karaya is playing SWTOR now, and I’m stuck on Skyrim. I’m not sure what Phritz is doing, and Lobilya is playing Skyrim, too.