Sunday, November 15, 2009


Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

I started playing a game called Borderlands about a couple of weeks ago. It’s a first-person shooter masquerading as an RPG, which means that the excuse for Rambo-esque levels of mindless violence is an endless proliferation of noble quests, fetch-and-carry exercises, hunting expeditions and attempts at ethnic cleansing.

The reward for all this effort? Experience, of course. The slow accumulation of those arbitrary little points, mounting towards the blessed number at which the counter resets and I achieve the unlimited powers of a level two Hunter. Which will let me go out and kill and kill again, with more effectiveness than ever before, and face greater challenges and fiercer foes, that I might accumulate more experience and rise to the pinnacle of human achievement that is level three, that I might become yet more powerful and render yet greater species of wildlife extinct, that I might accumulate more experience and reach the demigodhood of level four, at which point I can depopulate whole continents with the mere twitch of an eyebrow, gaining unprecedented piles of experience in order to reach level five, at which point…

You get the idea. In less entertaining games, this is called grinding – the endless, tedious repetition of the same actions in order to access content not yet available. I remember with gritted teeth my month in World of Warcraft’s torturous, mindless xp-mills; I see my better half’s inexplicable addiction to Facebook’s FarmVille, the very definition of pointless grind.

When you play a regular shooter, it’s for the exhilaration of combat and to progress the storyline. Borderlands, and any other RPG, you play for the levelling up. Everything else, including any pleasure taken from the front-end gameplay itself, becomes secondary. The very existence of experience levels changes the dynamic, defining the game not in terms of storyline or other abstracts but with reference to a series of short-term goals. But even though it’s a series of diminishing returns, as the reward is separated by increasingly longer periods of time and effort, we still do it anyway. And not just do it, but become addicted, obsessed with ‘just one more’. Why?

Probably because there’s something very comforting about the straightforward relationship between work and reward. Humanity has a tendency to reduce the irreducibly complex to something simple, straightforward, easy to understand. Look at Fox News, if you’re struggling for an example. Life isn’t simple, it isn’t easy to understand cause and effect. Things happen for reasons nobody really understands, and there’s no guaranteed correlation between the work that you do and your reward. That handsome chap at work spends most of his time surfing the internet rather than working, while you do all the little jobs nobody wants to do – who do you think’s going to get promoted?

But a level-based game quantifies that relationship, allows you to reduce something indefinable to something manageable, and rewards you just for showing up. It’s a guarantee that if you spend enough time, you will succeed. It’s replacing the uncertainty and challenge of skill-based gaming with the promise that enough time spent grinding through easily beaten enemies will eventually give you the tools you need to win. And since knowing your level and the level of your enemies lets you predict the victor of any given combat with reasonable accuracy, it’s simple good sense to play cautiously. When the reward for facing significant opposition is far outweighed by the penalty should you fail, the very game itself is rewarding you for avoiding risk. It’s a situation guaranteed to promote boring, grind-heavy play.

And those aren’t skill-based tools, like the sort of hand-eye coordination you develop from playing too much Pac-Man, but statistics-based ones. Abilities within the computer, not within yourself. Abilities anyone with enough time and patience could receive.

It’s this certainty of success, combined with humans’ tendency to break long-term goals into a series of smaller ones, which makes the level-based approach so successful, and so attractive. When carrying out a long, boring job, or at the gym, on the treadmill, who hasn’t started calculating halfway, one-third, one-quarter checkpoints? The sense of achievement you receive from hitting those goals, and the promise of a similar feeling when you reach the next one, provides the emotional drive necessary to continue at an unpleasant task. And keeps people coming back for one more hit, keeps them paying money into the coffers of MMORPG designers.

And these factors make grinding inevitable, even in a game which is quite a lot of fun. In something like FarmVile (no, that’s not a mis-spelling), it’s the whole of the game. And the addictive qualities of levelling are prompting quite sophisticated monetization of browser-based games. By allowing players to pay actual money for virtual cash and bypass some of that tedious grind, the developers are creating a built-in gold farming system and guaranteeing themselves a steady revenue stream, while those developers who eschew grind-based mechanics in favour of less exploitative (and more enjoyable) innovations are being left behind.

When I was a teenager there was a Playstation game called FutureCop, which had a side-salad game called Precinct Assault. The objective was to capture turrets and outposts, gaining points with which you could generate mini-tanks, which would then sluggishly trawl the length of the arena and eventually, hopefully, breach the walls of your enemy’s base. Naturally, he was trying to do the same to you. Your opponent was a computer-controlled flying machine called ‘Sky Captain’, who was tougher, faster and more manoeuvrable than you were. While you trudged around the arena on foot, he flitted over walls and away, claiming turrets you couldn’t reach and conducting hit-and-run attacks on your columns of tanks. All the odds were stacked against you.

But when you beat him on the hardest difficulty setting, after three hours of focused, controller-gripping tension as the balance of power wavered your way and his… when that little tank crossed the threshold of his base, and Sky Captain produced such a howl of frustrated rage that you shivered a little, in front of the screen… that feeling’s something I’ve never experienced since. I was lifted into the sky, tapdancing on clouds. And the reason I felt such elevation was the knowledge that I’d done something remarkable, something which had required genuine effort, genuine skill.

I didn’t just turn up.


Mark said...

Interesting essay. Thankee. :)

Randal has also noticed the similarity between exercise and games. I did much better at the gym (and arguably at life in general) once I started trying to optimise my statsheet a bit more. The popularity and effectiveness of things like WiiFit, or the badge/score behaviour gaming on StackOverflow are also, I think, good examples of whatever psychological principle is at work.

Levels/Experience can have other uses - for example, "natural" railroading. If the enemies are 3x your characters level, its a fair bet you've taken a wrong turn and there's plot events, characters etc that can be found elsewhere. Railroady, yes. But I personally appreciate some illusion of freedom, and methods of railroading that don't profoundly ruin immersion - "What? My band of Army-slaying Demon-banishing Fortress-levelling Ubermenches can't open a locked door? What on gods green earth is it made of?"

It can also be a cheaper way of increasing difficulty without spending (more) months polishing AI. When the game does have a lot of tactical depth to it, there's something very satisfying about using superior skill to thrash a bossmap where the monsters are on average 150% above the level of your party. In other words, I challenge your notion that Player Skill and Level Based mechanics are mutually exclusive.

And to play devils advocate, what's wrong with wanting some mindless escapism with a really simple reward trigger? So what if a game does not require me to spend effort on acquiring new skills or knowledge, training new reflexes etc. So what if it is in fact, just a slightly more engaging (in the case of, say FFX where I enjoyed the plot and beautiful artwork) or social (Having watched Alice play, I think you're being unfair to WoW)
way of switching off. To put it more confrontationally, if I wish to spend my finite energy per day on more meaningful activities at work, in personal relationships or hobbies, why can't I choose to fill the remaining hours with Pokemon, FarmVile, WoW, pulp fantasy, bopping along to indie rock or with whatever mindless activity I choose?

Incidentally, the techcrunch article seems to be a bit of a non-sequitur. The argument there is against lead-gen scams, and is at best only weakly related to level-based mechanics.

id said...

I think part of the difference may be that of personal vs. private achievement. The big draw of Facebook games, for those so inclined, is that they're slightly public. There's that "Hey, look at my farm / Mafia clan / vampire clan / airship" factor, which can still be felt even if none of your friends actually play the same game and thus will never see it. It's still out there, and semi-public. Hence, I guess, the success of grind-avoiding micropayments. If part of the appeal of the game is passive bragging rights, it becomes quite appealing to get ahead without expending any effort.

On the other hand, Precinct Assault has no such method for skipping ahead, and I'm guessing doesn't offer much in the way of bragging rights because very few people (myself included) have ever heard of it. The sense of achievement is a different, more personal, but not necessarily a stronger one.

I suspect RPGs are always going to suffer from this problem, though if Borderlands is an FPSRPG then it probably suffers less than others. In an FPS like, say, Counterstrike, one can spend an almost unlimited amount of time increasing your personal level of skill. Strategy too, and other genres. But most RPGs aren't like that - after the first few hours of understanding the system, your skill tops out. If you find a boss you can't beat, it's rarely ever something that you're personally not good enough at, it's something your characters aren't good enough at. So go and level some more.

Maybe in some cases this is a deliberate decision - you're supposed to be *roleplaying*, so remove things that drag the player's attention back to themselves? I'm guessing not, though, in most games.

Either way, the story or the social bragging rights that we get out of an RPG push mental buttons just as much as the personal achievement of beating a skill-based game, so I'm not convinced the latter is necessarily a better thing to aim for than the other two.

(Side note, oh ye of complaining about my wiki's text box size, damn is this a small box to type a comment into! =P)

id said...

Wow, Blogger's OpenID implementation sucks. I'm Ian, despite the fact that I'm apparently called "id".

Unless Blogger is into subtle Xenogears jokes, in which case I'll take it as a compliment before heading out to blow shit up.

Mystery Cat said...

Mark: Interesting point about the natural railroading, hadn't thought about it like that but does make sense. Still, there are subtler ways - foreshadowing, for example. Skeletons of knights outside the dragon's lair tend to indicate it's not to be messed with. Rewards observance and immersion, for the double-win.

And I challenge your challenge - I didn't say that level-based and skill-based gaming are exclusive, just that level-based gaming skews the dynamic heavily in the favour of a time/success correlation (I'm thinking something like Final Fantasy here, where skill is almost non-existent factor in success) it's an inevitability, given sufficient grind). You're right, though - with sufficient tactical depth there's no reason level-based gaming can't be integral to an enjoyable gaming experience - Borderlands itself is a fairly good example, where with sufficient FPS skill you can clear areas of the map far above your level, and still get the pleasure of levelling.

But I think the problem is that it's easy, and encourages laziness in the game designers themselves. Why bother building sufficient depth into a game when you can get by with level-based gaming; not only that, but the addictive aspect will keep people coming back (and paying for it, in the case of something like WoW).

I know, terrible that the designers wan't to be paid for their efforts. But it seems a shame that that kind of commercial model might be stunting innovation.

Mystery Cat said...

Ian: I had to go and look your Xenogears reference up, you know. And even know I'm not sure I understand it.

Anyway, interesting point about the 'bragging rights' side of things - levels are quantitative, so they give people an easy reference system by which to compare their achievements to others. Whereas it's hard to brag about an abstract quantity - it's only proved by direct competition with another abstract.

That's how life usually works, of course, but hey. I mentioned already that it's human nature to streamline, simplify and generally turn the impossibly complex into an easily-assimilated approximation. It makes it less terrifying.

On the RPG aspect, another good point. Level-based mechanics do, in a way, encourage RPGing (in a true 'playing a role' sense of the term) by removing or minimising the effect of personal skill.

But without the social mechanisms and fully interactive storylines which are (at the moment) beyond the capabilities of scripted games, I can't see how you can get anywhere near the kind of immersion a GM-run 'proper' RPG brings. Interesting to see what people might come up with in the future, if they can overcome the temptation to just throw levels at the problem. Farenheit had quite good story mechanics, but they got buried beneath a pile of quick-time evil. Would be interesting to see people expand upon that, or similarly innovate.

Oh, and I'm with you on the comment box size. But I didn't design the bloody thing, and I'm stuck with it.

Remy said...

I just wanted to say, great article & thanks for writing this. I've been debating Borderlands or not for a while and suspected I'd hate it - and you've made sure I didn't waste my money here :)