Players are greedy creatures. They want top-notch graphics, they want deeply moving stories, they want a soundtrack that’s entirely orchestrated. They want the games they play to be as realistic as possible, and at the same time will complain if any part of it is too tedious (a word that’s essentially synonymous with “realistic”). It’s for these reasons that your average player makes a terrible game designer — they want to put too many things into a game, and have no idea how to pare down their wants to solely those elements required to make a fun game. But it’s also for these reasons that a game designer can’t afford to be too far removed from the average player — they have a story and wish to tell it, but don’t include the level of interactivity actually required for their game to be considered something more than a fancy cut scene. The player wants to control as much as possible in a game, the auteur wants the player to control as little as possible. It takes a game designer with an instinct for procedural rhetoric to tell a story successfully while still allowing players to control a reasonable portion of the action.
I won’t pretend that I have this instinct; all I have is the willingness to sit down and think about what it is the players of a game really want, and this is where the post picks up the conversation where we left it yesterday. There’s a good reason that most MMOs don’t allow players to block off content for themselves: as I mentioned before, players are greedy. Players want to be able to experience all that a game has to offer, and in an MMO setting, they very rarely desire to raise a new character from scratch just to experience the content they weren’t able to enjoy the first time through. If taking one series of actions blocks a player off from a quest line they are interested in, what’s to stop them from becoming frustrated with your game?
There are other types of MMO players, as well: the casual players who often aren’t tied down to a single main character, and seem to enjoy little more than creating a multitude of alternate characters, leveling each one until the game gets even slightly tedious (about 10 levels in), then starting all over again. These players are a little bit easier to take care of — if you remove “grinding” from your game as I hope to with Atma, there’s not really an imperative for players to stop playing as one character. The issue for these players seems to be one of attachment; if you give them a means by which to place some personal stake in the world (something we’ve discussed recently), and make an effort to reduce the tedium associated with only using one specific character, it seems reasonable that these players could be willing to carry a single character forward and experience the entire game from one perspective.
Back to the previous breed of gamer, however: how do we deal with players who are completely committed to one character, but who won’t tolerate being shut off from any in-game content? Well, tough love is the first (and possibly cheekiest) response to this situation; the real world doesn’t let us have our cake and eat it too — the problem here being that, as I mentioned before, the real world is dreadfully tedious — so why should the game? And really, there’s not a whole lot wrong with this from the perspective of procedural storytelling. You’re not limiting the interactions possible in your game world, you’re changing the scope of the story in response to the player’s actions. However, we did make some concessions for those players with a fear of difficulty, so let’s see how charitable we can be in terms of giving the players what they want here, as well.
A lot can be accomplished here through an extension of what we discussed yesterday: if players unlock as much, or more of your game’s content than they shut themselves off from through their decisions regarding character relationships, they can hardly have anything to complain about. For instance, a particularly spiteful NPC, who has a grudge against you after you “reclaimed” an ancient artifact they had stolen could later approach you regarding some task they want you to carry out, in the hopes that this task will be enough to kill you off. Their surprise when you return, healthy as a horse and prize in hand, is one of those few comedy clichés I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of. Of course, characters who simply desire to inconvenience you are also viable here, as are a large handful of other potential subplots, each of which describes a potential reason for a character to communicate with you despite not particularly liking you. The most obvious negative aspect of this approach, of course, is that it generates substantially more work for game designers and developers, in terms of the amount of content that must be produced. However, it not only transforms a mechanic designed to seal off content into another potential means by which to unlock it, it also creates a realistic social dynamic in the process — we’ve all been forced to interact with people we don’t really like.
In summary, it’s not necessary to let your players have their cake and eat it, too, so long as they’re given a cookie to make up for the cake they no longer have. Players want everything you’ll let them have, and while this can be a discouraging fact when you intend for the choices a player makes to really impact their gaming experience, it doesn’t have to be a limiting factor in your game’s design if you’re willing to make a few accommodations.