Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How Many Characters Per Server? +

To jump back into this for a moment, I totally understand the "altaholic" point of view. Of course from the player's perspective it's desirable to have as many slots for alts as one might ever want. There's an advantage here to the developer as well in that having multiple characters exposes more of the game's content, potentially keeping the player subscribing longer.

So sure, we'd all like to have plenty of alts. But I don't think we can come to a good understanding of what a developer should offer without also giving equal consideration to the problems that are generated by letting players have lots of alts.

Which brings me back to the crucial point of how the overall game experience is designed. If the individual player's experience is based on what a single character can do (even if that character is part of a group), and all the game's challenges and character progression content are scaled to the individual character, then having lots of alts significantly reduces the level of challenge. As I said, when you can play as an ubercharacter with more capabilities than any single character is allowed to have, you're no longer playing the game as its designers intended it to be played.

The bottom line is that playing as an ubercharacter means you're cheating yourself. You're not getting the maximum amount of fun that's possible in the game.

Why should designers allow players to cheat themselves in this way?

The objection I know some will want to make here is, "Oh, but I don't feel like I'm cheating myself -- I'm just playing smart to get around a dumb/arbitrary restriction."

Originally Posted by Avery:
One of the numerous benefits to having alts is the ability to trade items, etc. to other characters that you own on the same server to serve as a BANK. Very Important, seeing as how there is always a limitation to how much junk you can carry around with you.
You're exactly right, this is precisely one of the benefits of having alts who can be allowed to share inventory slots.

And it's exactly the kind of problem I mean when I talk about "ubercharacters." Yes, one character has a certain limit on inventory space... because that's how the developers designed the game to be played. That limit, along with all the other limits, are set the way they're set in order to produce a specific gameplay experience. Good designers spend an enormous amount of time balancing those limits to try to maximize the actual fun that players can have over the long term. That's part of the art of game design.

To put it another way, limitations on character capabilities exist to create opportunities for what Sid Meier called "interesting choices," which are the decision points that make something a game instead of a book or a TV show. When a player can bypass those limits on what a single character can do (by being able to swap easily among multiple characters), the limits that make choices interesting are lightened or even removed completely.

I know this will be tough for a lot of people to accept. And it's even harder to justify when there are so many examples of limits that are obviously arbitrary, that developers only imposed to slow down advancement or make some trivial challenge into a difficult one. (Limiting most gameplay to killing mobs and taking their stuff doesn't exactly help maximize the fun potential of a gameworld, either.)

But limits are still necessary, even if no developer gets all these decisions right throughout a game, because without limits there's no need to make interesting choices. So even if some limits seem annoying -- like a maximum number of objects you can have in your house or your bank vault -- they're there for a reason. Even if it's possible to bypass these limits by running a bunch of alts because that increases your fun now, that doesn't mean that doing so will make the game more fun for you over the long term.

And designers have to account for that... at least, they do if they want people to stay interested in playing their game. This is what I meant when I said that "sometimes what gamers want is not what they should get." For a world to be fun -- for it to be a game -- there have to be some limits to what we as players can have.

So, with respect to alts, if we're talking about a class-based character advancement design, having a couple of alts (who can't trade with each other or exist in the game world simultaneously) helps to increase long-term gameplay because it allows players to enjoy a reasonably large chunk of the available content, one character at a time. But more than a couple of alts (especially if they can interact) would usually not be a good design decision because players will use those alts to bypass the limits on what individual characters can do, cheapening the intended gameplay experience over the long run.

And the value of alts is even lower if we're talking about a skills-based game in which characters can drop one skill to learn another, since changing a character's abilities over time is a core component of the game.

In short, alts are a kind of MMORPG crack: they're fun now, but you pay later.

Players, IMO, should just say no. And game designers should help them do so by minimizing the number of alts and their allowable interactions.