Sunday, December 3, 2017

Harmonic Feedback

Keen posted a short but revealing analysis of one of the most intriguing aspects of MMORPG gameplay (and, I guess, video game gameplay in general) - repetition. When I started blogging one of the very early posts I wrote was "Again! Again!" because I've been fascinated by the role repetition plays in entertainment for far longer than I've been playing MMORPGs or even video games.

Immediately before reading Keen's post I'd just finished Pitchfork's retrospective review of Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music", a masterpiece of supposed repetition. The experience of first hearing that album in the week it was released haunts me to this very day.

At the time I was merely mortally terrified by it although I came to love it later but I did for a long time believe the narrative that explained the double album away as four identical 16 minute slabs of noise. It's not. It's not anything like that.

Mark Richardson's review gives away something of the paradox whereby the same surface, penetrated, reveals different depths. Keen brings the same insight to MMORPGs with his EverQuest "hold a room and pull to it" example. It's one I have often called upon to try and explain why doing the same thing over and over is different from doing the same thing over and over.

Keen is searching for the line between good and bad repetition. It lies in chance. In chaos. in serendipity. If you read the Pitchfork review it refers to the way that Lou Reed placed two guitars with open tunings against amps so that they would not just create harmonic feedback but "with two guitars occupying the same space, the interactions between the instruments [would] create additional harmonics".

This is what happens in MMORPGs as they were originally designed. Specifically, it's what happens in the classic EverQuest play session, where a number of individuals are clustered in a fixed location around which mobs spawn and roam, to and from which a single player ventures and returns.

On the surface the situation appears extremely static. Having "broken" the room or the camp the players huddle in a corner and wait for a puller to go out and come back. They then unleash their spells and attacks on whatever comes along with him until it dies, whereupon they wait while he goes to get more. This they do for hour after hour.

Like Reed's unpredictable harmonics, however, the dynamics in play at the EQ camp are beyond the players' ability to predict. There are too many variables and too many of them are unknown. There's always the possibility that something will spin out of control.

For a while good players can shape the room. A good group will know the spawn times of the static mobs and the pattern of the roamers. A good puller will maintain consistency and avoid coming back with more than the group can handle, even if that means dying alone, out of aggro range.

A very good group will keep an accurate record of when each mob they kill dies, allowing them to predict the staggered and changing pattern of their respawns. With sufficient knowledge and a huge amount of concentration the process can be rendered predictably repetitive.

But not forever. No group, however skilled and experienced and attentive, can predict or control what happens outside their sphere of influence. They hold the room or the camp but the old EverQuest is a shared world. There are outside factors.

Another group or a single player may at any time disrupt the flow. Roamers can be killed, or held in combat, at far points of their range, out of sight, disrupting their patterns.

Different kinds of mobs with different strengths and abilities may spawn, randomly, unpredictably. In original EverQuest some of those unforeseen spawns might even have the ability to Charm players or their minions, turning the party against one another mid-battle. And of course, there are are the players themselves, always subject to unusual outside forces from a momentary lapse of concentration to a spilled drink to a kitchen fire.

EverQuest and MMORPGs like it were never truly dynamic, changing virtual worlds. Left to run with no players they would exhibit predictable patterns that would settle into stasis. Well, probably, although like the tree falling in the forest, who would know? Even between the faction-controlled NPCs and mobs there was always a modicum of randomness.

With players, though, nothing was ever the same. Nothing could ever be the same.

For weeks - months - around 2002/3 Mrs Bhagpuss and I would spend several nights a week in Velketor's Labyrinth. We liked Back Wall if we could get it. We'd clear and set up there with four other people permed from the pool we played with back then.

Mostly it was the same names. The spiders were always the same spiders. Every session was much the same. Every session was wildly different.

This is the good repetition that built MMORPGs. The repetition that replaced it, the kind Keen can't warm to, isn't bad. It's just different. Or rather it's not.

Instancing changed everything and yet it didn't change things all that much. I was happy to see it. Lost Dungeons of Norrath, which brought instances to Norrath, is up there with my favorite MMORPG expansions ever.

In LDoN dungeons there is only your group. It's a closed circuit. And yet, every session is still different. The parameters for change may be constrained but there's no such constraint on human behavior. 

You can zone into an instance you've done a score of times before and have someone do something you never imagined anyone would do. We once had a Necromancer respond to the first pull of the evening with an AE fear that sent everything the puller had brought scurrying deep into the dungeon, only to return with every mob they passed along the way. Things like that happened more often than you'd imagine.

Instanced dungeons with pick-up groups can be more repetitive than open dungeons with a static group. Or not. There's a hierarchy of predictability but the hierarchy can be unpredictable.

Nevertheless, as we move from the sprawling, uncoordinated virtual worlds of the late 20th Century into the silos of the early 21st the opportunities for chaotic revelation decline. As the genre pushes towards predictability, even-handedness and, most of all, solo-friendliness, the likelihood that if you do the same thing the same thing will happen continues to increase.

The tip of that knife is what Keen describes; repetition without dynamic gameplay. Which is fine in itself. As he says, his wife likes it. Lots of people like it. I like it. If what you're doing feels good each time you do it why would you not want to keep doing it?

I spend a lot of gaming time nowadays doing things whose outcome is relatively assured. Playing overpowered characters alone in closed instances I know well. It's relaxing. It can be satisfying when it leads to acquiring something desired; experience, faction, loot.

It's ironic in the extreme, though, to hear the gameplay of old MMOs described as "repetitive" when compared to that of the new. Were any developer to try and re-introduce the old kind of gameplay to an unfamiliar audience, raised on the MMOs of the last decade or so, I suspect that complaints of repetitive gameplay would be the very least of their worries.


  1. Indeed, sitting in a group camping a spawn could be very predictable over time and then suddenly become chaos due to even subtle changes or a mis-timed pull or any one of a half-dozen factors.

    I suspect that I am sort of the odd-ball when it comes to repeating content. At times I quite enjoy it. There are parts of the current WoW expansion... the opening quest line in the Stormheim zone for example... that I have done and enjoyed with six characters.

    But, then again, each character was a different class, so I could make the argument that each play through had its own flavor. My paladin went in hard and loud while my rogue was able to stealth through bits of it. My hunter had pets out and my mage... well, I was learning how to keep him from dying a lot. I don't play squishy casters very much.

    I suppose repetition is in the eye of the beholder. I've done, for example, the quest lines in the Lone Lands in LOTRO at least a dozen times. I still enjoy them. But then out in Mirkwood, an area I had never done before, the quests quickly began to feel dull and predictable and repetitive. I'd rather run the Lone Lands again. How do I explain that?

    1. Some things are just consistently amusing or entertaining, the way music often is. Other things are comforting by the very nature of their familiarity. I can do starting zone quests in many MMOs over and over again without it feeling repetitive in a bad way - heaven only knows how many times I've been through the city instances around Freeport and Qeynos or done the quests in Antonica and The Commonlands, for example. On the other hand, I did most of the Frostfang Sea quest line a couple of weeks back and enjoyed it but I need to put a couple of years between each time I do that one - at least.

      And what about the holiday content in MMOs? People not only do it every year, they get all excited about doing it each time. Someone in EQ2 General chat yesterday was nigh on hysterical over the imminent return of Frostfell and it's the same in GW2 for Wintersday.


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