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.