Today, I am going to talk about a specific, relatively trivial thing that came up recently on the DW creator boards. In the interests of ensuring that I don’t breach the creator confidentiality rules that I suppose I am still bound by, I will change the details so that nobody can be sure of the specifics.
Really, you shouldn’t bother reading this as it’s nothing more than a rant that is inspired by the fact that I still have a lot of emotional investment in Discworld. There are years of my effort in that place, and it is frustrating to see that effort (and the effort of all the others) being so badly managed. The following blog content is discourteous and unprofessional. It contains strong language. It is not suitable for children under the age of twelve. You have been warned.
There is a lord of a domain (let’s call that domain… Mlatch). His (or her) name is, let’s say… Maggie. This lord has done a number of dumb, pointless things over the past few months – adding languages that nobody uses and currencies nobody cares about, all for reasons that – well, nobody asks about because you don’t do that kind of thing. Recently though, he (or she) was asked to add support for these currencies to a pair of existing commands (let’s call them, ‘Mate’ and ‘Monvert’). His (or her) response was – ‘no, because I don’t think those commands should exist’. In fact, when another idiot in his domain (let’s call this one ‘Cristophanes’) said ‘I agree, let’s delete them so people use the otherwise useless item we have in our domain’, Maggie said ‘okay, unless there are any objections, I will make it so’. Luckily, smarter and less dickbaggy heads prevailed, but it did incense me to such a degree that I broke my self-imposed vow of silence on the board (and that in turn provoked this mean-spirited blog post).
Anyway, that’s all preamble, and leads me to today’s topic for the blog.
What is the worst sin in a game developer? Is it arrogance (god, I hope not)? Is it unwavering adherence to design principles? I would say it is confusing what you find fun with what everyone finds fun, and then insisting that everything is changed around your own narrow definition of where fun lies. ‘Fun’ is a tremendously broad church, and people can find it in the weirdest and least intuitive places possible. ‘Grinding’ gets a bad rep in games, but when I played WoW I found it… well, not entertaining, but relaxing in a very real sense. People say ‘having to stop what you are doing to sell your loot is annoying’, but I found it punctuated the grinding nicely and created natural stopping points for me to go do something else. Other people hate grinding in every way, and think it is nothing but ‘filler’ to stop people going through game content at the pace they would like. Neither of these views are right, and neither of these views are wrong. They simply represent points on a spectrum. As a game designer, you have to decide where on that spectrum is the valid range of ‘fun’, and then design your game around that. The sin comes in defining that range too narrowly, and focusing it too strictly on what you, the flawed human meatbag, finds to be fun.
Every game design decision is essentially editorial – you are saying ‘I believe this should be done’, when you can’t *prove* that either your change or the intended end goal is *right*. But, here’s the important thing – you have to be able to justify it with criteria external to ‘I just don’t like this’, because as I said, you’re a flawed human meatbag. If you can justify it, people can at least see why you believe the things you believe, and engage in profitable discussion.
You have to be able to say ‘this is not fun because X, Y, and Z – the other way will be more fun because A, B, and C’. The reason this is important is that it shows people that you have actually thought through the implications of what you are planning to do. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I think the gravest thing that a game developer can do is take things away from players. It is unprofessional to do that for any reason other than ‘this is causing real problems’, and it is downright dismissive to do it because ‘I just don’t like it’. People put real effort into writing code for games, and people incorporate these efforts into their own game styles. Invalidating either of those things on a self-indulgent whim is tremendously disrespectful of both of those things.
In the case of Mate and Monvert, the reasons that were eventually elicited (after the fact) were – ‘having these commands reduces the social opportunity of people asking how much X is in Y’, ‘If it’s so bad to remove code from the game, we should just let it become outdated’, ‘If letting it become outdated is so bad, then we should just delete it’, ‘If we’re to have commands to save players the hassle of working out what currency is, we might as well delete all the rooms to save players the hassle of having to find NPCs.', ‘Different currencies make people think’, and ‘If you want people to not have to think, then whichever domain introduced the command should maintain the command’, ‘the game has become less and less of a challenge over the last decade and resultantly less fun.’, and ‘adds to immersion’. All of these had to be hauled out of Maggie, like the Egyptians would haul brains out of the noses of corpses.
I’m going to go through each of these in turn.
The first relates to the social opportunity. Here, we have to buy into the premise that it is in fact a social opportunity. The currency information is already available in a help file (if it wasn’t, it would be available on the game wiki, probably along with other web based tools that fill the need that Discworld does not meet). The assumption that having to ask for actionable information will result in some net social gain is peculiar. My experience on Discworld is that all it will result in exchanges such as ‘How much is X in Y?’, followed by ‘Lol, enough to buy an abacus, lol’. Any social interaction that would be gained would be of the shallowest, least beneficial kind.
The second is perhaps the most annoying. Discworld has a tremendously egalitarian philosophy regarding code – ‘your code is your code, game code is *our* code’. Everyone is encouraged (within the boundaries of their available permissions) to maintain every part of the game they can. Maggie’s attitude is divisive and strikes at the collegial core of the developers. More than that, the idea that it is in any way appropriate to let active code in the game acquire intentional decrepitude is downright ludicrous. Discworld already has an impossible bug backlog to fix without intentionally generating more on the basis of a personal dislike.
The third shows the circular, flawed logic at the core of self-indulgent proclamations like ‘let’s delete these commands’. ‘If it’s so bad to leave it to die, we should delete it. If we shouldn’t delete it, we should leave it to die’. These are broken positions to take up because they assume that one or the other must be true, and for that to be the case there has to be a convincing argument made.
The fourth is a ridiculous argument that has merit only if you buy that the slippery slope is inevitable. That kind of rabbit-hole thinking is what leads to paralysis of action in any case, because every single thing we do *can* lead to other bad things happening. The fact is, it usually doesn’t because there are checks and balances, and game designers should be assessing, at every stage, the impact of a change they are going to make. This argument can just as easily be phrased as ‘If we remove Mate and Monvert, we need to remove ‘appraise’, and then we need to remove ‘time’, and then we need to remove…’. Slippery slope arguments are a seasoning at best, in any well formed argument. If your entire argument is based on the slippery slope, you have no argument at all.
The fifth is that ‘different currencies make people think’. It is true that requiring additional cognitive burdens on people will increase their cognitive burdens. That’s hard to deny. The question is – ‘think about what?’. In what way is forcing people to do trivial arithmetic actually going to make them have more fun in the game? It’s a point that Maggie too obviously considers unconvincing, since he (or she) has already said ‘there’s an item in the game to do it, and people should use that’. So, clearly it won’t make people think, there is just another item they are forced to use in order to play the game.
The sixth relates to the second, in that Maggie has seemingly decided that he is above the need to maintain code he (or she) doesn’t like. He (or she) is the one ensuring the command doesn’t reflect the state of the game, but someone else should clean up after him (or her). Infuriating!
‘It adds to immersion’ is an unconvincing argument for one simple and obvious reason – the job of the UI is to get out of the way of players. Discworld is full of processes such as – hold a thread and then hold a needle and then thread a needle with the thread before you can sew a pair of buttons. You spend so much time fighting with the interface that you lose any ability to suspend disbelief. You never lose the feeling that you are playing a game, and that is fundamental to immersion. The UI has to get out of the way, and it gets out of the way by making sure that getting access to necessary information is as straightforward as possible.
Finally, the kicker – ‘the game has become less fun over the years’. That I agree with entirely, but the suggestion that it has been made less fun as a result of it being more accessible is ludicrous. First, you have to be willing to accept the premise (and plenty people won’t, although I happily will), and then you have to accept the conclusion based on absolutely no evidence in the slightest. It’s a statement of faith, not a statement of rational analysis, and that is inappropriate in someone making decisions that can affect hundreds of players.
The real irony in all of this is – I promoted Maggie to Lord of Mlatch. It was obviously a dreadful mistake in retrospect, because this is only the latest of his (or her) destructive or self-serving arguments. His PK alt was killed once in the Mlatch domain, at which point he (or she) triggered off a hilarious thread on the player boards about how he (or she) was going to change the priests and priestesses so they protected PC priests as well as NPC priests, and how they’d all pay oh yes they’d all pay. ‘If only someone had the power to change it so I can’t be PK’d any more OH WAIT SPOILER ALERT I can!’.
This is the guy (or gal) who made priests more aggressive to people with deluded items, again because ‘I don’t like them’. Worst of all, he (or she) is the person that has finally made me regret leaving Discworld, because I so desperately want to stop him (or her) fucking anything else up.
 Direct quote.
 Like almost all of my promotion and hiring choices