Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Thottbot versus Explorers

I've mentioned this before (in "Will the Real Explorers Please Stand Up?"), but I don't see exploration as purely about walking around to uncover the physical layout of places -- I think it's more generally about adding to the sum of knowledge about the rules of the world. Mapping topography is part of that, but it also includes contributing to what's known about cultural patterns and the "laws of nature" -- that is, the structural rules created by the game's programmers that govern how stuff works in the game world.

One of the reasons I'm looking forward to learning more about Star Trek Online is that Star Trek was always about exploration. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is all about the challenge and joy of exploration -- not just of galactic phenomena, but of the hearts and minds of the people who live among the stars. [2008/04/25 update: This optimism was before Perpetual Entertainment, the former developer of Star Trek Online, abandoned -- or was forced to abandon -- its license to develop that game.] [2008/08/25 update: Optimism tentatively restored. Maybe Cryptic can do this right.]

That's why an important part of my game design is that it procedurally generates millions of planets, insuring that there'll always be some place remaining to be explored for the first time. (The game Infinity is attempting to prove this approach.) I'm also hoping to design a technological research system that's equally about continuous exploration.

Well... what happens to the challenge and joy of such exploration when there's no place that thousands of people (mostly Achievers) haven't already gone first? Why explore when thottbot proves there's no need, that there's no new knowledge to be gained by exploring?

This is why I'm reluctant to take the position that what other players do doesn't affect me, that other people using thottbot doesn't damage a game for me. Playing a massively multiplayer game means being part of a social system in which what you do affects me and what I do affects you. Those effects may be only indirect, but they're there and they matter (otherwise a single-player game would be preferable). Online games are communities, and as such they benefit from being designed to welcome Explorers as well as Achievers and Socializers.

So wanting to explore isn't about "being first." That's an Achiever perspective. This is about the personal satisfaction of being able to contribute new knowledge to the community -- that's what motivates Explorers, whether their name is on that knowledge or not.

I discovered just last week that an essay I wrote several years ago has been referenced in a Wikipedia entry. I can't tell you how pleased I was about that -- not because I'll get anything for it, or because I was the first to say it, but purely because someone felt that some ideas of mine usefully added to our knowledge about how the world works. In a very small way, I was able to contribute knowledge, and that's tremendously gratifying.

But when "knowledge" is deliberately defined by an online game's design to be a finite and static resource -- maps, hit points, quest solutions -- Achievers will insure that very little time passes before all knowledge is published, leaving nothing for Explorers to contribute.

Instancing, individualized crafting recipes and other user-specific content, BTW, aren't much help here. If you're the only one to whom some bit of knowledge applies, then learning it contributes nothing to the community. So while there's nothing inherently wrong with user-specific content as a way to personalize everyone's gameplay, it doesn't do much for Explorers. Better would be for a MMORPG to be designed in the first place to allow for continuous exploration, rendering thottbot irrelevant and user-specific content unnecessary.

Thus, my argument against thottbot is best understood as a minor aspect of my larger argument against finite, static gameworld designs. If your gameworld is completely explorable (as WoW and virtually all other MMORPGs are), then thottbot is a problem because it hastens the process of devaluing Explorer play. If OTOH your gameworld is designed so that some aspect of it is practically infinite, then both thottbot and manual data collection aren't as much of a problem. And Explorers will have a fighting chance to express their particular gifts.

In no way does that mean that players who are happy with collecting "mosts" and "firsts" can't do their thing. It just means there's at least one area where they can't crowd out other kinds of players.

That's not a threat to anyone's gameplay.

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