Saturday, January 5, 2008

Food Buffs +

Originally Posted by Saturn:
I actually have to disagree with that form of generalization. I think before you judge that way you should really know the context of when and where such a game mechanic takes place and how it is used WITHIN active game play.
With respect, Saturn, I stand by my comments.

1. Buffs are not active gameplay; they are passive modifiers.

While if they're made a core part of the game they may have tactical effects, by your own description these effects are often time-limited to minimize abuse. That means you can't actively deploy different effects in response to environmental cues in an ongoing way -- once you've activated a few buffs for whatever you encountered first, you're done for a while; you can no longer change your buffs to respond to changing tactical conditions.

Which means that developers barely have to stir a brain cell to add such effects. You make a list of the attributes of characters, then you create a few items that enhance those attributes for X amount of time. (And if you're feeling especially creative that day, you make sure each enhancement also has a minor negative effect of some kind.) Poof, instant content.

Except that this "content" is in no way as interesting as active capabilities, because only active capabilities create opportunities for players to make the interesting choices that Sid Meier once noted were at the heart of fun. Adding a buff that makes you 5% more resistant to dragonbreath for 20 seconds -- a passive feature -- is in no way, shape, or form as helpful for making interesting choices as adding an active feature like (for example) a once-per-day random local teleport ability.

So I stand by my assertion: A developer who cranks out a bunch of "set it and forget it" buffs is lazy compared to one who creates character capabilities that can be used actively to make interesting choices.

2. Once buffs are added to a game, they never, ever remain "minor" or "temporary." In the kinds of MMORPGs swamping the market today, buffs always become must-haves because they provide an edge to the many players who've hit the level cap.

So the actual effect of adding buffs to a MMORPG are to create a completely asinine sub-game I call "BuffQuest." Instead of playing the actual game (which is what they'd be doing if the developers had added active content -- see above), maxed-out players spend their time trying to find the best sources for buffs. If the buffs are item-based, you'll have all your top players grinding missions or camping spawns to get the best buff-inducing drops. (I note that although this is particularly obvious in PvP environments, it distorts even PvE gameplay.)

And if the buffs are provided by other characters, you'll have even more pathologies:

    players constantly spamming the world with "can u buff me???!!?" tells
    the creation of alts whose sole purpose is to buff the main character
    the use of macros to create "buffbots" (as seen in SWG) who destroy the gameworld's immersiveness


On balance, then, I don't think I'm over-generalizing or judging without knowledge. In the level-based MMORPGs of today, buffs create an artificial sub-game of looking for the next fix that has little to do with the main gameplay of the game (and virtually nothing to do with the storyline... if there even is one). All they are is a cheap way for a developer to say, "See? We gave you content!" instead of making the effort to provide new active abilities that create opportunities for players to make interesting choices.

Are buffs the absolute essence of evil? No, that distinction goes to excessively powerful macro systems. (Don't get me started on that one!) But they're bad enough to be worth rejecting in favor of expecting developers to provide true active content.