Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Variable Roguishness: highs and lows

"The pattern's laid out on the bed
With dozens of colors of thread
But you've got the needle -
I guess that's the point in the end."

Amanda Palmer - The Point of It All

Three weeks ago while writing about the curiously successful FTL, I said I haven't played rogue-likes. Thinking back a bit, I realized I was mildly fibbin'. A dungeon crawl through algorithmically-generated environments and enemies... oh if only I had some sort of hauntingly tense and desolate audio track wrapping that concept in nostalgia for me.

Ah, there it is.
I suppose it's a credit to Blizzard's fiendishly over-funded advertising department that up until now I'd always thought of Diablo as only a simplified RPG, though I'd learned about Rogue and "Rogue-likes" some few years ago. Certainly they were careful never to even whisper the word NetHack to us children of the 90s glorying in the twists and turns of Tristram's catacombs. Even though I've often thought back to how proud I was of having sussed out Diablo 2's mapping algorithms and being able to find my way around with minimal exploration, I somehow never linked this experience to the concept of a "roguelike" I acquired much later.

So by extension Rogue is the grand-daddy of so-called "action" RPGs in general, given that they were Diablo clones just as MMOs for the past decade have been WoW-clones. Randomness offers well-founded appeal: that little thrill of having to decide whether to take a left or right at the next oubliette, knowing that no-one before you has explored this dungeon, wondering exactly what monster will boogety-boo at you from behind the next corner. That trace of monkey curiousity which modern entertainment has not quite managed to extinguish is only too rarely, but laudably, appeased.

However, this genealogy does not end with the deaths of Mephisto, Diablo and Baal, unfortunately, because randomness has more sinister applications as well. Though the first game in the series was an honest work unto itself, Diablo 2 was among other things one of the main laboratories for the development of slot-machine gameplay. Those who don't like me calling MMOs "WoW-clones" like to point me to WoW's inspiration in predecessors like Everquest or Lineage for its loot-grinding gameplay, but the truth is Blizzard didn't particularly need outside examples. They'd been running their own experiment on the subject for years. Diablo 2, especially in its multiplayer incarnation, attempted various ways of keeping players interested. It put out more classes, more varieties of monsters, more visually varied environments, full orchestra music, cinematics, etc. Increasingly though, it became clear that what drove players on was the loot. Not the experience and actual character progression, which proceeded at a steady pace, but the randomly generated rewards kept them re-killing the same red horny bastard sitting in the middle of the same pentagram for hundreds of hours of gameplay on end.

Game reviewers tend to praise this-and-that as "addictive" so frequently and facetiously that we don't give it a second thought but this? Random loot drops? Behaviorists like to call this Variable Ratio reinforcement and it is quite literally addictive. It's gambling addiction. It's the reason great-aunt Mildred pissed away her life savings sitting in front of a one-armed bandit in a casino and your cousin Bob fed his college fund into a video poker machine, and it's the reason why you've killed the dark elf boss a hundred times over hoping for the sword with a 0.0001 drop rate.

It seems roguelikes have much to answer for.
No. Not really.
Random loot drops are only one facet of algorithmically-generated content. That's all that made it down through the electronic generations into theme-park MMOs. The industry latched on to the quickest buck. What if, instead, we were to focus on the many actual possibilities instead of the simplistic overwhelming addiction to wrapped presents?

How about randomizing challenges instead of rewards, you know, the first half of the concept.
Procedurally-generated terrain is only the start.
Imagine shooting a flamethrower at a randomly fire-immune monster. Hope you packed a sidearm.
Think about multiplayer teams having to quickly organize their algorithmically-determined gear before a match.
Picture crops or forests growing in shifting patterns, mutating and acquiring new properties, across the landscape of Middle-earth, Arrakis, Tatooine, Trantor, the Sword Coast or Azeroth.

... dozens of colors of thread

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