[6 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
One of the curious tenets of a rule or law is that people have to want it to exist. If nobody thinks a law should be obeyed or has an interest in its sustained enforcement, then it ceases to function. Need precedes Rule. Unfortunately, while this sounds nice in theory, in real life it rarely works out so neatly. Politicians will often posture and gain attention by creating poorly designed laws or without really thinking about the full ramifications of a principle, making life difficult for everyone. A modern example would be a recent state law intent on beautifying highways by banning all billboards along certain stretches. The owners of these billboards protested the government taking control of their property and took the case into Federal Court. The Feds decided that although the law was Constitutionally legitimate, they had to pay the owners of the billboards for their value. The State cannot not afford to do this, therefore it cannot enforce its own law. The billboards are still standing. The law is now effectively “ganked.”
I borrow the term gank from multiplayer games because it effectively describes a situation where a player is still operating legitimately in the confines of the game but has broken the system. In World of Warcraft it refers to a Rogue getting a stealth kill or when a high-level player kills a weaker one. The situation can legitimately occur within the game design, but it has just rendered the game unplayable for someone. The need for such conduct to be reigned in is usually gauged by the game’s developer and new rules are applied to make the majority happy. An example would be the account of the Twixt situation that occurred in City of Heroes, in which a player found a legitimate way to beat most of the opposition using a teleport attack. The essay details how Twixt was violating social norms and was often insulted for doing so, which subsequently led to the developers introducing rules that broke the teleport attack that Twixt used so effectively. You can see this idea in action in countless multiplayer games. A Halo 3 map that lets you throw grenades up an elevator to what was supposed to be a sniper nest had crates blocking the passage in a subsequent update. A weapon that gives a minority of players an effective edge will be “nerfed” so that the majority can keep playing. Game design decisions and intentions enforce player expectation.
While this concept certainly works in multiplayer, it gets a little bit curious when you apply the idea to a single-player game. Is it possible to gank a system in which I’m not actually being unfair to anyone else? To even apply the concept to a single player game, you would have to introduce a need that is at odds with the player. In this case, it seems that the “need” would have to be represented by the intention of the actual designer themselves and their desire for the player to play the game the designer’s way. The most likely category would be a min/max scenario where the player has way more of something than they should during a sequence. A good example would be in an RPG in which you’ve got 200 potions (or stimpacks), experience no penalty for lugging all that around, and can use them effectively during combat at any time. Combat ceases to be a struggle since you can heal yourself so much, and all the enormous complexity and design that went into the game design is now ignored as a result of that lack of challenge. The problem is that you now have what game designer Mike Darga refers to as a diminishing return game design. He writes that diminishing returns can be defined as “any efficiency, [in which] the tendency of increasing costs [tends] to be less effective at increasing rewards. Diminishing returns may only apply above a certain cost level, or they may scale over the entire range of possible costs.” The more easily and effectively a player does something, the less it should give back. Darga’s post is concerned with multiple examples of diminishing returns (like making the same game too often), but his final observations can be applied to game design.
The reason that this is an issue is that the game will usually become boring for a player that can easily gank it. Presenting a tense combat situation that the player is meant to struggle with becomes trite if they find some loophole that allows them to easily kill off their enemies. The player wants the experience to be exciting, so they accept the rule that makes combat difficult and will even impose stricter rules to enhance this experience. I don’t think anyone would contest that there is a large body of players who want these sorts of rules and designers who are very talented at making them. But can the concept go beyond that? A column over at Gamasutra by Lew Pulsipher makes an argument for Nintendo’s Demo Play feature. A player can click a button and have the game play through a difficult level for you. I’m tweaking his language, but you basically are appealing to a bunch of people who don’t have a need for strict rules over how they play a game. The entire game is effectively system ganked. What does that leave for the player to do?
Such questions have already been answered by various genres that allow system ganking to occur. In Fallout 3 the stimpack stockpile is possible because stimpacks do not weigh anything. A barter system combined with a steady supply of medics with piles of stimpacks means I’ll be carrying gallons of the stuff in no time. What does Fallout 3 offer instead? A vast world to explore, numerous items to play with, and a huge emergent plot are all given to the player. Yet none of these features are ever enforced by any specific rule. Exploration can be obviated once you visit a location through insta-travel. There are plenty of items to play with, but you can bet that you’re going to be using a combat shotgun for most of the game. The plot features thousands of spiraling lines of dialogue, but I can easily load my game if things don’t go my way. Even the difficulty is optional; it can be adjusted at any time (along with the reward for kills). Which might be the most interesting design element of the game: it does not operate with any presumptions about what the player needs from its game. It does not impose any rules, instead letting the player impose them on their own. Need precedes game design.