Friday, June 15, 2007

Persistence vs. Perception

In the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist model of game design, one of the things -- possibly the most important thing -- that distinguishes the Simulationist approach from the Gamist approach is whether or not to let players fail.

In the typical MMORPG built squarely around Gamist interests, failure is not an option. You may temporarily be unable to successfully complete some quest or task, but if you're able to access that task at all then simple persistence is enough to allow you to complete it eventually. As long as you keep playing, you can't lose. Persistence is rewarded.

In a simulation, however, you are free to fail. If the reactor blows, or the person you're chatting up slaps you and walks off, the simulation is over. All you can do is restart it. Persistence won't help you here because the system is too complex to count on the dice rolling in your favor. The best path to success in such an environment is to use your failure to build a better mental model of the sim's internal structure, then apply that newfound understanding effectively in the next run of the simulation. In other words, in a simulation, perception is more efficient than persistence in achieving the desired result.

I'm not pointing out this difference to try to make a case that one approach is always "better" somehow than the other. I don't think that's the case; I think different people naturally prefer different approaches to play, and that's fine. I also think that different approaches work better in different situations, so adaptability is a virtue. What I'm really after here is to consider how much of both of these approaches to problem-solving (in addition to the Narrativist preference for people-oriented solutions) should be available to players in Star Trek Online.

To put it bluntly: Should players be able to fail?

If your ship's warp core is going critical in the middle of a firefight and I'm the Chief Engineer, should it be possible for me to fail so badly in trying to repair it that it actually does go *boom*?

What if, as someone playing an engineer-type character, the possibility of failure makes the gameplay more fun for me (even if it's not fun for someone else)? Perceptive learning is the key to the Simulationist's preferred style of play, just as enduring persistence is the key to the Gamist's preferred playstyle -- so how much fun will the game be for Simulationist gamers if simple persistence is always good enough, if learning through failure doesn't play a meaningful role in determining success?

Is there a workable balance that can be struck here?