Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Discovery and the Community

One of the greatest things about games to me is finding something new. In the past, that's always been something programmed into the game - a particular village or awesome plot point or whatever.

But what about games with infinite content?

Games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress were the beginning. Now there is an explosion of up-and-coming games that make them look like tinker toys. Starbound and No Man's Sky are today's flavors. Not only is there a massive amount of player-driven construction possible, but there's also a lot of content built right in. Content you will never see if you just play it as you like.

And here is where the trouble starts. How much do you guide the player? How much do you show them, how much do you let them discover on their own?

I want to explore. Telling me where to go, or that some other player was here before, ruins it for me. On the other hand, I don't like futile searches for some required doodad, and would prefer if you told me how to get it. And, hell, a lot of times I just want to see a video of something cool on Vimeo. Every player has different preferences.

In the end, right now, there is a crisp divide. You either know nothing and have nothing to do with the community... or you've read the wiki and know absolutely everything about everything.

In the future, this divide will not be crisp.

The community is starting to be integrated right into every game at the most basic level. Doing this clumsily can really alienate someone like me, because I like playing games alone for the first thirty hours. Getting constantly reminded that someone else was here first, or is running around screwing up the world on his own, that's a big failure in my mind.

On the other hand, there are tons of kinds of content that you need the community for, and even more that benefit from the community even if you don't absolutely require them. For example, the community will produce better tutorials than the game devs, and will show you how to build things the devs never thought of, although both could technically be accomplished without the community.

But giant cities built brick-by-brick or mods that add in completely new functionality are things that no player will ever be able to see without reaching out to the community. There's no question that the community makes high-level play a million times more interesting. The question is: can you get a player involved in the community without destroying the low- and middle-level experience?

For example, in Starbound I can't find a "molten core", which means I cannot progress. There's nothing in the game that tells me what one is, or if there's any other way to progress. So I'm going to have to go to the wiki and read up on it.

How much effort will it take to get just that one piece of data? When I'm there, won't I feel the urge to look up how to make those musical instruments, or read up on the seemingly-useless lever item, or how to use the 3D printer? It's incredibly difficult to not get sucked in. And if I do get sucked in, I'll go back into the game with high-level knowledge short-circuiting my low- and medium-level play. A lot of the joy of exploration will be gone, because I'll know the parameters of the universe.

Similarly, if there's a game where community content is automatically shared into the single-player experience, it's easy to drown in it. That was the real weakness of Spore: content overload. Even in something like No Man's Sky it's a risk, because there's probably going to be a damn popup with the name of the first person to discover whatever planet I'm on, completely ruining it for me.

So... I guess I'm telling devs to be careful. Integrating your community into your game is a great idea, but you have to be careful to let it leak in slowly, in tiny amounts. Augment your game with community content, but don't make your game 100% about community content.

... Also, don't tell me that I'm doing something hundreds of other people already did. That's really dumb.

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