[7 October 2009]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
In yesterday’s Moving Pixels Column, L.B. Jeffries considered the concept of “ganking”, a term commonly applied to multiplayer gaming experiences and how the problematic concept of players finding loopholes to circumvent rules in a game might additionally apply to single player experiences. Jeffries began his essay with a kind of real life example of how a system might be “ganked”, which I guess is a good enough place as any to respond to some of his intriguing thoughts on the issue of how rules and the violation of rules might boil down to a desire on the part of players to simply have the freedom to merely “play”.
Jeffries’s initial real life example considered the decision to enact a law to ban highway signs along certain stretches of roadway in order to beautify them. When the owners of the billboards brought suit against the government for essentially seizing their property, courts upheld the law but required that the owners pay the billboard owners in order to cover their losses. Since the government couldn’t pay, the owners maintained their billboards. The intended rules still exist in this scenario, but they have also have been effectively circumvented. Thus, the system allows for violating the rules despite the rules continued existence—something akin to ganking.
Jeffries goes on to offer some quite compelling examples of how players then might want or need to be able to violate some rules in order to better enjoy the “system” within a game. While I hesitate to propose a counter argument to this in a political sense (I consider myself a staunch libertarian and thus desire to align myself against rules on general principle and promote freedom) nevertheless, as I have considered Jeffries ideas, it occurred to me that one problem that I have with this notion of encouraging player “freedom” might be an idea that I was troubled by that is embedded in his real life scenario. Sometimes laws and rules aren’t good to begin with. It may not be that we need to abolish law but that we need better law. The “ganking” that occurred as a result of these rules becoming problematic in practice may indicate that the weakness of the design of a rules system (indicated by the potential collapse or lack of necessity for a rule altogether) may indicate that the rules themselves are weak ones and needed to be reconsidered altogether.
To return for the moment to questions of system ganking that apply to multi-player games for instance, I am reminded of the problem that exists for many co-operative MMORPGs concerning power leveling. Since characters in a role playing game gain power by gaining experience (usually through combat) in a role playing system, the obvious temptation to circumvent the standard rules of gaining experience at a controlled rate by killing monsters exists. Often players do so by piggybacking on the greater powers and leach additional experience from other higher level characters by teaming with them in order to kill monsters that lower level players should be unable to kill. Since much of the challenge of the game is predicated on a rules system that suggests how quickly a character may be developed, nevertheless, players do not often want to go through this “grind” and often for good reason. If your pals play City of Heroes every night for 4-6 hours at a time, and you would like to join them but you are burdened with real life responsibilities like a spouse and a job, taking the time to level up alongside them might become difficult for you. Since you can’t stay up until 3AM every night, you are going to quickly fall behind your friends and find that you can’t play at their level: the “rules” are prohibitive when it comes to low level characters challenging mid to high level content.
This indicates a conflict of the needs of the player and the designer in generating rules for playing. Perhaps, then, a compromise or reconsideration of the rules might resolve this problem. Interestingly, City of Heroes implemented rules to deal with power leveling and to address the needs of the casual gamer. A “sidekick” system was put into place that allowed a lower level player to become a sidekick to an upper level player, effectively increasing the low level player to the level of the high level player (thus, allowing low level players to participate temporarily in higher level content areas with their friends). However, experience gains were adjusted so that the low level character did not gain access to high level experience. An inverted version of this system (the name of which escapes me) was also implemented allowing high level characters to essentially “sidekick down” to low level content and again adjustments were made for experience point gains. While these rules still contained some problems, they were a better “law” than the one currently in place as they allowed for what players wanted to do without violating the intentions of the system. Additionally, such solutions indicate that the answer to resolving system ganking might not always be met by “nerfing” or by simply letting rules become purposeless (as in Jeffries’s example). Sometimes adjustments can be made to make a law better and suit the needs of the player’s interests and the designer’s intentions, a balancing of needs.
One type of single player “ganking” of the system that has always bugged me is the exponential growth of economies in simulation and other types of games. While in games like The Sims the player usually begins the game with scarce funds, eventually (and generally quite early in my experience) an efficient player will find that his own personal income will rise as a result of taking good jobs and managing resources well at a rate that far outstrips the cost of items that that cash is intended to buy. Once you have a couple million simoleons buying whatever is necessary for your sim home becomes an invisible expense as you generally can simply buy at leisure, reducing the challenge of managing resources in a game whose rules partly (if not wholly) depend on keeping a handle on an economy. While we could just chalk these moments up to a kind of lovely sense of freedom that this experience creates for the player (getting to experiment without effort with every item in the game), that the system can be ganked economically may just indicate that the rules of economy are badly implemented and that, for the next iteration of the game (or games like it), that better rules might be put into place that maintain the intended challenges of the game.
One such solution to the economics issue is a recognition that stop gaps need to be created on progressive economies and assigning ways of encouraging the player to starategize about managing resources better. For instance, things like time limits might be helpful. Generally, more traditional economic board board games like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Agricola have recognized such problems and attempted to resolve them in this way. All three games concern creating mechanisms to generate resources in the most efficient ways possible in order to score the most points to win the game. Since building an economic machine that is efficient and that is unencumbered by random acts of God that might interfere with a real life economy means that eventually profits will boom wildly out of control, designers like Uwe Rosenberg and Andreas Seyfarth have placed limits like a certain amount of turns to play or game ending conditions that halt production before it becomes absurd. As my recent review of Majesty 2 observes, such limiting factors can be put in place in the scenarios of an RTS in order to control for the hyper-production that ruins the challenge of struggling with resources rather than finding this essential element of the challenge of playing such game to be only burdensome at the game’s start. Again, this isn’t an example of abolishing or ignoring the rules of a system but adjusting them to balance the competing needs of player and designer.
I am assuming in some sense that most players, ironically, are interested less in “play” (a term that I associate with freedom and the violation of rules), perhaps, than they are in “gaming” (a term that I associate with challenge, competition, and learning how to function well within a system of rules). I, also, do think some questions might also be raised about the desirability of gaming (the pleasure derived from knowing that you have won a game because you played within the rules well) and the desirability of experimentation, or more simply put, “cheating” (the desire to see if you can gank the system by breaking the rules well). But, perhaps, those are issues that Nick Dinicola will address on Friday.
This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and concludes with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.