Monday, June 27, 2011

I have honestly no idea if this is even going to make sense

In these blog posts, I often like to digress a little about something interesting in the world of game development, and one of my more charming (infer whatever level of facetiousness you care to there) characteristics is my tendency towards my digressions being of a somewhat convoluted and long nature.

I don't know that I'm heading down an especially long trail in this blog post, but I think that a lot of the logic I'll be linking pieces together with will be tenuous at best (thus the title). I also don't know specifically where I care to end this piece, so there's also that.

Anyway, one of the big stories in the games world this week was the furor that arose from the EVE Online community concerning CCP's introduction of microtransaction items that were comparatively prohibitively expensive. I won't go into great detail, since it has been covered better and more thoroughly by many whose knowledge of the game and situation are greater than mine, but I do want to use it as a jumping-off point to talk about emergent systems in games.

The crux of the EVE community's concern seems to be how this will interact with their economy. Or maybe it isn't. That's not the point anymore, since I've successfully used this to segue into a talk about MMO economies. MMORPG economies are a thing of real interest to me - they're really fascinating, and even before I was interested in game development, I realized that these were something special: complete systems of interaction that used a game as a medium but not necessarily as a facilitator. This is a clear peak of emergent gameplay, which is something that any smart designer (and here is where I start speaking in ignorance, perhaps) should strive for.

Right? Emergent gameplay! It's the best possible investment for a developer, since it represents hours of play the end user can enjoy without any specific development on the developer's part. Right?

At least it seems that way to me, and what's interesting is to see how something so obviously emergent and so incredibly intricate as a player-built economy springs to life. My guess would be that this is a natural extension of social groups forming, and when you look at how cultures form over history, certain institutions pop up - families, governments, economies - all things tied together with some level of tacit agreement about how people will interact and work within a system. Video games see these things develop too (players are people, after all) in any situation where lots of players must interact - families become "buddy lists," or governments become "clans," etc.

What I was thinking, though, is that as one starts to look back at early societies, early societies banded together with specific goals in mind, not things so ephemeral as we see the "happier" social constructs of MMOs are (those things like families). Early groups of people banded together for survival and for extra-group acquisition of resources. Maybe this is a poor assumption, and if so, well, there it is. In any case, I don't know that games have ever done this, or that games currently can - forcing a "survival" mechanic implies some level of fear/awareness of danger, which is probably outside of what games should do, and it implies some level of solitude, which is probably beyond the scope of games right now. After all, people play social games to be social, right?

I think that there is an interesting case to be made for a survival-type game to be enjoyable: Minecraft. It's not the first of the "survival" kind, and in fact that mechanic is not even its main draw. However, I think that the flexibility of the game and the allowed creativity provides a means for the survival mechanic (one in which the player is intentionally isolated) to work well. I think that in that light, as hardware allows for more extensively-sized worlds, tossing players into that kind of situation where they are alone, but they just may encounter other players - that may lead to the rise of that untapped area of social emergent gameplay - the "cave people"-type banding together for survival and resources. I believe that it would be an exciting phenomenon for game designers and anthropologists both to see how those societies eventually formed.

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