Monday, April 24, 2006


Some people have expressed an opinion that they should be able to powerlevel, or twink, or exploit gaps in the code preventing the collection of valuable in-game assets, or otherwise get around the rules of a massively multiplayer game as those rules were designed by the developers. Their excuse for this: they're not breaking the rules, they're "meta-gaming."

Umm... no. They're cheating.

I've heard "meta-gaming" defended as acceptable behavior by gamers unknowing using precisely the same justifications tendered by hackers for breaking into someone else's systems:

  • it's so clever that the entertainment value outweighs any ethical concerns
  • if the developers didn't want players doing some thing, they would have written code to prevent doing that thing
  • exploiting a bug is being "helpful" by exposing the bug to the developers in an impossible-to-ignore way
These are lame rationalizations for cheating offered by people who aren't good enough to win the game playing by the rules.

The point here is that massively multiplayer online games are not single-player games. If you (generic you) are playing a solo game and you want to "meta-game" (or whatever the PC term for cheating is these days), so be it -- you're only hurting yourself by depriving yourself of the entertainment experience you paid for. If you don't find the results sufficiently entertaining, don't even think about complaining to or about the developers.

But while getting around the rules can be tolerated in a single-player game, it can't be permitted in a multiplayer game because what you do as a player -- what you're allowed to do -- directly affects the entertainment experience of other paying customers.

In a massively multiplayer game, it's not just that "the player's fun comes first" -- it's that "the fun of all players in the game should be maximized." That's sometimes going to mean that what a few people find personally enjoyable has to be squelched for the good of all the other players.

And it has to be this way. The idea that it's OK if just a few players are allowed to get around the entertainment experience as designed is bogus in a mass entertainment medium. To try to insure that the most participants are getting their entertainment dollar's worth, the designer -- not players -- must control the game.

How long would Vegas last if some players could "twink" their buddies on the blackjack table with face cards, or be "powerleveled" on the roulette wheel with knowledge of where the ball will land?

For mass entertainment games, the designer has to be in control of the game, or it stops being entertaining for the masses.

Of course game designers are not always right. They're people, too, and as such are more than capable of making lousy (i.e., not-fun) design decisions. They can also write buggy code that allows unscrupulous people to exploit those bugs for personal advantage. But massively multiplayer game designers being fallible and limited does not justify players taking the law into their own hands, because:

  • Most players aren't thinking of others, but only of themselves.
  • Most players don't have as much massively multiplayer game design experience as even fallible developers.
  • Most players don't have adequate big-picture or behind-the-scenes knowledge about a specific game.
In short, most players aren't objective, they aren't experienced, and they aren't informed. The designers won't be perfect at those things, either, but they'll still be better at them than most players.

Ceding control to the very small number of entertainment consumers who are objective, experienced and informed won't work, either. All that does is create class warfare between the haves and the have-nots, and blur the lines of responsibility for providing enjoyable gameplay content.

And blurred responsibility never, ever works out well.

Thus I conclude that both the right and the responsibility for controlling a mass gameplay experience must reside with the developers, not the players, and that position should be stated clearly to everyone and enforced. Ceding either the right or responsibility will make any mass entertainment product less entertaining than it should and could be. And that ultimately hurts us all, producers and consumers alike.

Game designers are by no means perfect, but it's still their job to determine how a massively multiplayer game should work -- not the players'.

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