The Repetitive Nature of Games and Why Endgame is Elusive

Here we go round the mulberry bush...

Scree’s back! And the criticism this time is repetition.

Here’s the dirty little secret: games -are- repetitive.

One of the points of a game is that it lays out a set of rules and you repeat and iterate on the scenarios it presents you with till you get better at it and “beat it” or “win.” Games have a learning curve.

The nirvana that everyone is seeking is that perfect state of flow, where one’s skill level perfectly matches the level of challenge so that one is deeply engaged.

(Image from Wikipedia.)
(Image from Wikipedia)

Problem is, everyone is different.

One game’s level of challenge may match one player perfectly, while another may find the challenge too difficult and thus end up worried and anxious.

I’m not sure that graph is accurate on the lower scale, where relaxation is graphed at a higher skill level than boredom.

For some, it could be the other way around, where high skill level and low challenge leads to boredom, while a medium skill level and low challenge leads to finding the activity relaxing.

Then again, for others, it’s a lot easier to be bored than it is to really relax – one may need l33t Zen monk skills in meditation to achieve proper relaxation, while nearly anyone can be bored outta their effing mind on a regular basis.

It’s in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

It really comes down to what kind of repetition you find fun (or will put up with) in order to do something that you feel is enjoyable.

Different people reach different answers.

Scree finds that PvP produces a new situation every time it occurs. Those who prefer PvP tend to claim that they are drawn to this because the skills used can be the same, but the opponents are different, creating sufficient variety for them.

I’m especially tickled because I somehow managed to find that WvW was too repetitive and burned myself out from the game format some time ago.

You see, personality-wise, I’m very low on the competitive Killer Bartle scale. I’m just not really interested in the whole metagame of guess and second-guess your opponent in order to get one-up on them and win. So my tolerance for repetition on things PvP tend to be rather low, a couple rounds played for fun and variety… done.

Even in that eden of PvP, Eve Online, the blogosphere has been exchanging a little quote of the day highlighting a core repetitive aspect of the game.

Getting from one place to another apparently involves a lot of the same steps repeated over and over – turn off and on autopilot, manually warp to zero per jump gate. The only variety is what manner of shark awaits you at each step.

For some, that’s enough to consist of quite an adventure, and they willingly acclimatize themselves to the game’s little repetitive quirks to get the bigger experience.

I’ve been playing Don’t Starve quite a bit over the last few days. I easily get to my second winter and often get to days in the 100+ range. But then, I turtle.

homesweetbase

I turtle A LOT. I don’t play RTS games on a competitive basis because I tend to derive more pleasure spending two hours teching up to EVERYTHING and then creeping in the equivalent of siege tanks or battlecruisers to slowly demolish the computer’s bases one building at a time over outsmarting a real life person, who can turn out to be exceedingly obnoxious, win or lose.

I get that a lot of clever people have discovered they can shortcut this process and created dozens upon dozens of other strategies they can use to win against another party trying to turtle, which leads to more counter-strategies to defend against this, which leads to more counter-counter strategies to get the upper hand, unsoweiter.

I get that this is a delightfully deep metagame for some.

I admire it from afar with videos and commentators to help me understand it, but I choose not to spend a good part of my life learning one game to such a high degree of focus.

Back to Don’t Starve. I build a base. Preferably near 5-6 rabbit holes.

I expand it. I make a little tooth trap alley to the side to fend off hounds.

icallitthehoundnommer

I engage in tons and tons of repetition, including chopping wood for a day or two, gathering grass and twigs for another day, checking on my nearby spider den with pigs (aka silk farm) to make sure it won’t ever overgrow into a Spider Queen, catch and cook meals for another day or two, spend another day or two figuring out and reaching the next source of rocks and flint – just to prep for an expedition that may extend me into unexplored territory and necessitate a secondary base/firepit or an overnight stay not-at-home-base with a campfire.

When Winter comes, I run back to civilization central and my tooth traps and spend a good half my time just chopping wood and keeping the food supply going. Because I don’t want to starve, thank you. (Or freeze.)

NOT FREEZING.
NOT FREEZING. FIRE LEVEL ABOVE DESIGN PARAMETERS.

On the other hand, Azuriel would probably stab his eyes out from the repetition I engage in with the same game. He prefers forward adventuring progress.

Me, I haven’t even seen Maxwell’s door in many of my worlds, and never stepped once through it. I prefer a slow and steady stable state with some incremental creep.

My guess is that each person’s preference for how much excitement and adrenaline rush and thrill versus relaxation they want in their games is different.

(The old hard fun vs easy fun war again. There’s actually two more types if you follow the link.)

For those who find they enjoy a game that is short and linear but continually ramps up the challenge till the content is all done (like Portal and Portal 2), MMOs are going to be an inherently disappointing affair. Once they’ve mastered every challenge they care to, that’s it, done. Finite content is finite.

Time to go on to another game or another MMO, at least until the devs have enough time to produce more content to devour.

An endless endgame?

Whatever it is, it’s going to repeat -somehow-.

WoW raids are a delaying tactic. Kindly repeat the same fight but with the variation and difficulty of cat herding a lot of players with different schedules and skill levels for an RNG chance of desirable loot. Hopefully, this takes you long enough so that the devs can produce the next raid for you to do something similar till the next patch.

If you think that in Everquest Next, there won’t be players who will be searching for and making a point of repeatedly killing the most desirable mobs… I think that you’re sorely mistaken.

One hope that it has of stretching gameplay is the possibility of player-created content, which provides supplementary content to dev-created content, just like how mods can extend the lifespan of a single-player game.

Clarity of preference is important, rather than just dismissing a game as “too repetitive.”

I suspect that Scree prefers “impactful” games. A game where player actions can mean a great deal. Where player actions form the meat of the content via emergence. Where hopefully the NPCs have enough AI to form meaningful, discernable patterns that can be exploited but not TOO exploited.

Well, we’ll all be watching upcoming PvE sandbox games to see if they manage to achieve this elusive holy grail.

A lot of this stuff tends to break the moment you throw the “massively multiplayer” part of the equation in.

We’ve learned that player-created content tends to give rise to “xp farms” where players design, create and run repetitively an optimized encounter so that they can reach max level (and level alts) at the best possible speed. (Thank you, City of Heroes and Neverwinter. Possibly Everquest 2 too.)

We’ll see how fast ingenious players can map the world sufficiently to determine node spawning patterns (must farm crafting materials, y’know!) or provide trackers for mob movement or spawns to determine the most probable places to head to for xp/loot/combat action.

Case in point: observe niche game A Tale in the Desert – randomly spawning mushroom locations produced a shroomdar. This game barely attracts 1000 players at the best of times.

Do you think the combined brainpower of a popular MMO cannot crack what a single team of developers code? Or at least harness the power of massive crowds via  individual player reports? e.g. see GW2 dragon timers before the API was made available.

If you have xp in a game, players will figure out the best way to get xp fast. Even (and especially) if it means repetition.

Skills-based, not levels, you say? I point you to Darkfall and its stories of skill grind, where at least some players will macro it, or engage in the equivalent of leaving a weight on one’s keyboard a la Morrowind or other Elder Scrolls games.

If you have loot in a game, rest assured players will repeatedly do whatever it is to gather it.

Ideally, they are enjoying the activity they repeat. (Note: level of enjoyment varies based on player personality and preference.)

Whether that activity is combat (versus mobs or against other players), or gathering some form of resource (xp, gold, shiny loot for stats or looking pretty, craftables, luxury collectibles), or exploration and discovery or yes, even travel and commuting from point A to point B.

Eventually though, a player is bound to get bored of whatever repetition they were engaged in and wander off. Or burn out if they weren’t careful enough. Part of the gaming life cycle.

The real questions are:

  • Do they wander off to another activity in the same game?
  • If they wandered off to another game, do they ever come back to the one they left? (Check things out or pick up where they left off?)
  • And how frequently do they do it?
  • (Oh, and do they give the devs any money for providing such experiences in the meantime, of course. 🙂 )