Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Then a cheat, now a norm

I was watching the TV-show "FlashForward" the other day, and as the story of the show opens up in little pieces I noticed myself thinking about going to some website to see what's going to happen and what the mystery of the 137 seconds is all about. In this case I decided against it, maybe because the story has the kind of mystery to it which I have learned to enjoy in shows like Babylon 5 (during which I adamantly resisted looking the spoilers), Life on Mars (still haven't peeked how the US version ended) and Ashes to Ashes.

So a thought came to me.

Earlier in computer games, there were sites which had walkthroughs to different games. I bet there still are. In my book the use of those walkthroughs equalled cheating, admitting that the game is too hard for you or that your imagination isn't enough to solve the problems by yourself. The same as with different "god mode codes" which have been available to console games. I admit on checking them on some games, sure. In those cases, however, the games had a bug which was making the advancement impossible without a proper patch, which at that time was something I couldn't do. You see, I didn't have an internet connection back then.

The walkthroughs were guides on how to pass the game as effectively as possible. Or how to overcome that devious plot twist or final confrontation. Or how to pass the questlines faster.

Or how to kill the boss in the end.

In a way you could think that the strategy guides through the difficult and multi-phased end boss fights are walkthroughs in MMO's. The same as the use of questing addons, which take away the actual adventure and exploration away from the game. What was earlier considered cheating in single player games is in MMO's a gaming community norm. Now you are faced with the fact that you have to learn the boss fights -at least in principle- before you actually engage in the actual confrontation. And to reach that point in the game, you have to level as fast as possible to the level cap, because "that is where the game begins".

I'll ponder more on the issue of instance or raid bosses, though. Considering the fact that the MMO game experience is a group activity, it isn't any wonder that these strategy guides exist, though. In single player game it's all about you, yourself and your capabilities to overcome the opposition, but in MMO group content you have to rely on your team in addition to your own capabilities. In the heat of a boss fight with 10, 25 or even 40 fellow players the overall picture may well become shrouded in the fury of playing your own game the best you can, leaving the raid leader into a difficult micro management position of strengthening the strengths of the team by giving guidance to it. Even the most capable raid leader cannot be expected to be able to convey all the special tasks of the classes to everyone in the party, let alone decipher and comment on each individual's task and performance between the wipes. Even if this was possible, it's not realistic to expect the group spend the time discussing or learning the strategy there and then. The time spent on learning the strategy outside the game gives the party more time to actually play the encounter and find better solutions more suited to the party itself. In the end, it's better for all in the group have at least the broad overview of the fight, rather than know their own part of it only.

What was earlier considered a cheat is now the way the game is played. In fact, it has become more a necessity to use the off game resources to overcome the ultimately very complex boss encounters properly, and gain the feeling of progress in the game. Even though the game's publisher hands out the datasheet for the current bosses special abilities, these can only serve as the 'strategy guidance' a boxer might receive from his trainer before the crucial fight. It doesn't change the fact that it all comes down to the execution: the boxer has to overcome the upper left hook of the opponent by himself. In a raid its the same: even if all the group would know the boss' special abilities and their counter moves, even if they knew the strategies before engaging, there is the apparent margin of failure which comes from actually playing and reacting to the real fight happening on the screen. The strategy only gives the possibility of a solution, to which the party must find a way to actually do it.

In fact, the actual execution of the strategy in timely and proper manner in a team may be too much for some, even with the knowledge of the strategy. And that's the reason why it still feels good to kill the boss!

I wonder what would happen if the boss fights were not scripted and there was no 'best strategy' to win? What do you think about the cheats being the common norm in the MMO's?