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The Devil's Advocate: Unintended Consequences

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on April 05, 2013

I was looking over “Cash 4 Gear,” the last Devil’s Advocate piece, and I spent part of my week trying to find a good way to respond to comments while considering how best to approach my Final Fantasy XI - ArcheAge comparison piece, which was posted earlier this week. 

After thinking for a bit and looking not only at game mechanics over time, but also player behaviors as evidenced in the advice some give me for Final Fantasy XI, the idea dawned on me to write about a rather broad topic based on some specific examples.

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The basic idea for today’s Devil’s Advocate is this: everything we do, every system that is created for a game through its lifecycle, and the intermingling of human nature with fixed, finite systems such as those found in games, will always have some form of unintended consequence.

Framing the discussion

There were a number of ways in which I could have tackled this particular discussion. For one thing, I could expound on the idea of the poor reception of Star Wars: Galaxies’ New Game Experience, then posited that the unintended consequence of the update was how, in trying to cater to a wider audience, the update and the history surrounding its timing ruined the game for a not insignificant number of people.

I could have also discussed how one potentially unintended consequence of permitting a game company to persist in selling low-level gear for redeemable currency led to the slippery slope of the Cash 4 Gear phenomenon as a possible present practice.

Instead, I would like to simply discuss what this week has brought me in terms of information about Final Fantasy XI, and how the game, in its attempt to make the process of leveling easier for new players, has also introduced its own issue into the game that may need a remedy.

Levels and Skills

Prior to the introduction of the Adventurer’s Mutual Aid Network (AMAN) valor tomes, Final Fantasy XI’s world did not have floating books in open world areas and dungeons that provided extra experience or money for killing specific enemies repeatedly. If you wanted to level up, you would have to team up and repeatedly kill mobs as a team to level up, stay safe, and increase your skills.

Now, this is an important point. Levels were raised by experience points. Skills were raised by skill points. While you were assured of raising experience with a kill, skill points were given incrementally at a per-use paradigm: to become proficient at using a particular weapon or magic school, you had to hurt things with the appropriate weapon or magic.

When the Fields of Valor system of AMAN was introduced, I didn’t think it was a drastic change. All I knew was that information I had gotten when I purchased a new FFXI collection to add to my Square Enix account, the old info  seemed to still apply, and if I wanted to level up, I had to grind on monsters in the sand dunes. It was valid, but people online told me there was an easier way.

According to people on a number of different sites, by going into the Gusgen Mines and teaming up with people there while using the AMAN Valor system there, I could gain as many as 15-20 levels in an hour or two. This would be great for opening the world up to me, as I could complete job quests when I hit 30  So I spent two hours in the entrance of a mine shaft as other players pulled enemies at our alliance of leveling characters: unlike what some people remember of FFXI in the earlier years of the game, I had reached level 30 in the game before my third day of owning the game.

The unintended consequence of this, however, lay in skills. By teaming up with a mass of people to repeatedly grind through mobs in a tunnel to raise levels, I would lose out on skill training because I’d get fewer hits in on enemies, leaving myself at a disadvantage once I get out into the world and try to fend for myself. Worse still, if you were a new player who didn’t know anyone, you wouldn’t be able to afford the gear needed to play your class properly at that level, which would frustrate some people, especially in squishy job types.

Getting Somewhere

Where am I leading you with this anecdote? Two things: the first is that companies are trying to find ways to update their games to provide players with good experiences and keep them playing. The second idea is that, because humans are naturally good at exceeding our potential, we ourselves break the games we love through min-maxing behavior that can potentially make us miserable in the immediate and long-term phases of our enjoyment of a game.

When I see, for example, a post about class balance in World of Warcraft, I know that the theoreticians out there mean well in providing a way to level the playing field for people. One issue, however, is that craftier practical players will find ways to go beyond theoreticals and muck up the math with some new maneuver that, while not illegal, is something a developer did not expect when they attempted to balance the system.

To that end, I appreciate players and developers both for bringing an ecosystem of constantly shifting variables into gaming. It is a lot of work, I’m certain, for developers to keep looking at player logs and analyzing the math to bring improvements while minimizing abuses of the improvements

At the same time, I urge MMO players who love their games to maintain a cool and level head when the urge comes to berate developers for instituting changes that they think are insidious. I do not think most of these alterations and updates, whether they be additions of AMAN Valor Tome grinding in FFXI, PVP class balance in most MMOs, or game retrohauling to improve a game’s chances of staying afloat, are there to make your lives hell.

It’s just that they can’t prepare for every eventuality, and sometimes, a player will stumble onto an issue just by being himself.

I hope everyone takes to heart the idea that both gamers and devs want to make a game something worth keeping for a long time. The only thing both sides need to agree on is that the other’s actions should not be treated as a personal affront to one’s sense of dignity.

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and The Secret World columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.


Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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