The Destruction Of Fun

My favorite game, Path of Exile, expanded rather significantly yesterday, and as a result I’m not really capable of thinking about anything else. Fortunately, there’s an episode from the game’s past that I think illustrates something interesting.

Path of Exile is an online action-RPG notable for its depth and flexibility of character specialization. Abilities can be modified, empowered, repurposed, delegated to devices which will use the ability for you. One aspect of this specialization is an equipment system – 10 different item slots for weapons, helmets, boots, and so on.

One of the most fundamental assumptions in the game’s design and balancing is that those equipment slots are exclusive – a character can’t wear five hats. (This isn’t Team Fortress 2, after all!)

Players found a way to violate this assumption via an unintended mechanic known as “snapshotting” in 2013. After its discovery, players developed more and more convoluted ways of abusing it, until snapshotting was removed mid-2014.

Here’s a demonstration from Chris Wilson, Path of Exile’s lead designer:

I shudder to think how much cumulative time has been wasted doing this.

– Chris Wilson

This is how fun is destroyed in social games (to simplify enormously):

There are two ways of playing the game. One is more fun than the other, and one is more efficient than the other, in terms of producing more digital currency or bigger damage numbers or whatever. If the fun playstyle is also the efficient playstyle, all is well.

But otherwise, as in the case of snapshotting, the existence of the efficient playstyle destroys the fun playstyle. If the game has an economy, inflation driven by the efficient playstyle drives adherents of other approaches into poverty, destroying what fun may be involved in participating in the market.

If the game is competitive, efficiency-oriented players deny the satisfaction of victory to the fun-oriented.

If the game has cooperative aspects, funseekers are unable to contribute meaningfully.

And if the game is intended to be challenging, the designers have to balance that challenge around the most powerful approaches, leaving weaker, more fun playstyles unable to even progress through the game past some threshold.

But if the efficient playstyle is never discovered or disseminated, of course there’s no problem.

To put that another way: detailed knowledge of game mechanics can be an information hazard.

5 thoughts on “The Destruction Of Fun”

  1. As in gaming, so in life?

    “To put that another way: detailed knowledge of game mechanics can be an information hazard.”

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  2. Eh. This piece doesn’t actually make any normative statements, but I can’t help but get the impression that it’s written from the viewpoint of, you know, “Oh, those damn competitive gamers, ruining our games!” So I think it’s worth mentioning here the alternative point of view, namely, that making sure the fun can’t be destroyed by memetic hazard — that what’s efficient is fun, that the game is actually deep instead of secretly shallow — is the game designer’s job, that they have not done it properly otherwise. See Playing to Win, etc., etc.

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      1. I figured you probably did (hence why I just described the viewpoint sketchily and assumed familiarity with “Playing to Win” 😛 ). I don’t think I expressed my point well, which wasn’t intended to be “I think such-and-such is what you think” but rather “Those who don’t know any better will take this as an argument for such-and-such”; that is, while it doesn’t say anything false, I feel like it’s misleading to those who don’t know any better.

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  3. From the “philosophy” section of the manual for Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, a single player game:

    Another basic design principle is avoidance of grinding (also known as scumming). These are activities that have low risk, take a lot of time, and bring some reward. This is bad for a game’s design because it encourages players to bore themselves. Even worse, it may be optimal to do so. We try to avoid this!
    This explains why shops don’t buy: otherwise players would hoover the dungeon for items to sell. Another instance: there’s no infinite commodity available: food, monster and item generation is generally not enough to support infinite play.

    You don’t even need anything social here; players are plenty eager to destroy their own fun.

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