I am looking gleefully forward to the imminent release of Guild Wars 2 next month. The game simply does so many things “right”, the removal of a subscription fee, the art aesthetic that strikes a balance between excessive surrealism and believability, the open-ended content and new approach to skill usage.
I could spend this entire blog entry praising GW2, but that would be highly redundant since there are already plenty of websites and blogs that do just that. Instead, let me share one of the issues that I noticed (and have not seen any real discussion of)
Swarm/Zerg mentality, AKA “Just throw more people at the problem”
Any open-world event system or open-world PvP system runs into this problem. When any obstacle presents itself, the instinctive response for any normal person is to throw more people at the problem. This occurs in real life problems pertaining to sports, academia, and business, and just like real-life, this is not a fun or efficient solution (sometimes not a solution at all)
Why Is That a Problem At All?
Below, I will define exactly why this open-ended design is bad for intelligent and fulfilling gameplay through two different perspectives.
For Players that Derive Enjoyment out of Contribution towards a Goal
The more people used to reach a goal or overcome an obstacle, the less significance any single person had on the overall probability of success. The less significant you are to the process; subconsciously you recognize that you have lesser reason to be part of the process at all. This deters goal-oriented players such as me that derive entertainment from maximizing my contribution towards the goal.
For a more tangible explanation, consider the case of a Guild Wars 2 event where 100 people were involved and each contributed 1% towards the goal. If you were to leave the event, that means 99 people now have to accumulate 100%, each person now has to do 1.0101%, that increase is completely irrelevant to the 99 that remains. Your presence, your contribution, was meaningless; you did NOT change the overall outcome.
For players that derive enjoyment out of actively contributing towards an overall goal, telling them that their presence was inconsequential deters them from participating at all.
For Players that Derive Enjoyment out of the Process towards a Goal
I must recognize that many players simply enjoy the experience of being part of a large group, their individual contributions aside; the joy of identifying with a group of single purpose is evident in everything from political parties, sporting events to fan clubs.
The swarm design does indeed cater to this type of player, since the more people involved in the event, the more grand and epic the experience feels. This however does not lend itself to “intelligent play” and in my view is a backwards step in game design.
Any designed obstacle that can be easier overcome by the addition of more people has one inherent attribute in common - the goal is reached by a straight-line function accumulation of effort. The straight-line function of the goal means that any addition of people can never be detrimental to the success of the event, useless additions may not hasten the process but they will never hinder it.
This inherent attribute to swarm design is in opposition of “intelligent play” design. Games that evoke intelligent play cannot accommodate erroneous moves or bad play, wrong moves are punished, and bad play halts progression. Apply this theory to a sports metaphor: a missed basketball shot does not gain the team half a point, mistakes are punished therefore piling terrible players onto the court does not improve your chances at winning. In open-world game events where participation is unlimited, the addition of terrible players DOES improve your chances at winning.