Monday, May 16, 2011

Ethics and the Sandbox

Despite my having received no real response to the previous post on this subject, for my own sake I am going to talk again about game design.  It is, shall we say, on my mind.

Today, consider Dr. Cat's Stamp Collecting Dilemma:

"Lots of people might like stamp collecting in your virtual world.  But those who do will never play with those who like other features.  Should you have stamp collecting in your world?"

We know that there are a wide range of features that people find enjoyable in online worlds. We also know that some of these features are in conflict with one another.  Given the above, we don't yet know if it is possible to have a successful world that incorporates all the features, or whether the design must choose to exclude some of them in order to keep the players happy.

The pleasant thing about D&D - and all tabletop RPG's, of course - is the deliciously human element in the Dungeon Master's presence.  The simple fact that I am an enormously complex and adaptable interface that is able to respond - spontaneously - to the user's request, whatever that request may be, in a manner so friendly that the user can even aid in the interface's adaptation while the new program is being created.

That is, if I as a DM know nothing about stamp collecting, the player who wants to play with stamp collecting can explain how it works in the middle of the game, a compromise can be reached and I as DM can create some kind of adventure which will satisfy the stamp collector.

Computers are pathetically behind the game in this regard.  And, for the record, so is any table the DM can create ahead of time, since all a table is really only an aid to the DM.  I can't seriously create a new table in the middle of the game should something odd come up - and it always does in a sandbox.  The reality is, as a DM, I have to work the heights without a net and come up with something on the spot, if I don't want my game to descend into the 80's equivalent of computer text games that used to tell you that north was not a direction you could go.

Gentle readers, I know how painfully obvious this is.  But it sets the stage for the next part of this post.

A computer interface does not get bored.  It may be limited in what sort of stamp collecting it offers, but it will play games with stamp collectors as long as the power continues to work without complaint.  DMs, being human, have less tolerance.  If, as DM, you do not particularly like stamp collecting, having to run week after week a sandbox world where the players only want to collect stamps will drive you up the fucking wall.  You may tolerate it a few weeks, or longer, but sooner or later you will find yourself standing on your feet, screaming at your players, "FOR Christ-freaking-fucking-suckmaster's sake, can we just NOT collect stamps for one fucking night?!?"

Yes, you're human.  And those who do not like stamp collecting will eventually grow weary of those who want to do nothing else.  What else can you do?

Well, you can present a position to the players which allows no debate.  You can explain that your world will not be full of hack & slash.  You can explain that you find town adventures so godawful boring that you won't be running them, ever.  You can explain that while yes, you like a sandbox, you'd rather not run players who use the blood of little old ladies to paint wagons they use to drive over small children while distributing magically-created drugs to women they've made pregnant.  It just isn't your game, thank-you, and if the player doesn't understand that there are 'walls' over which they won't be allowed to cross, they can just go elsewhere.

So here is the dilemma, and it is one that covers every aspect of this game.  1) People can do everything, but they won't.  2) Computers would do everything, but they can't.

Eventually, someone will create a computer game that will let me do anything I want with a grandmother's blood.  In the privacy of my own room.  By myself.  Without anyone ever having to know.  I'll even be able to obtain the game without people knowing, because like the DM at the present time, I'll be able to explain to the computer interface what I want, and the computer will adjust to the game play that makes me happy.

I may not live to see this happen.  But it will, eventually, happen.

It makes you wonder what sort of games are being played in basements and kitchens around the world, where stuff goes on that would cause morally-correct community members to turn a shade of astounding gray-green before rushing from the room in a quest for the nearest toilet.  Most of the old grognards have their tales, I'm sure, about how they did this or that back when they were in high school or college ... but of course there are still people playing that way.

On the weekend, I started a campaign with wholly different people than normally make up my offline party, as they had not had the opportunity to play D&D and they were wanting to learn.  It so happened that they'd had experience with a wide variety of MMO's: World of Warcraft and so on, and most lately Dungeons & Dragons Online.  I don't play any of these games - I never have - but I understand the principles and of course I did find myself as DM in the position of having to 'compete' with the player's greater familiarity with those games.  Not that it's much of a competition - as described above, I can do many, many things an MMO can't do.

And yet, I am not so foolish to say that I can do things that an MMO will never be able to do.  I look forward to the day when the programming gets to the point where I'm not putting my rules into a WIki, but into an Interface ... which in turn will study my style and method and turn it right back on me.  Won't that be the day?

I know that scares some readers right down to their socks, but not me.  GIGO dictates that the reverse is equally true: BIBO (brilliance in, brilliance out) will happen.

Solving, thus, Dr. Cat's dilemma.  Because D&D isn't really about the production of a game according to some particular person's vision of what D&D is ... it's really a game where every particular person's vision has room to work.  Minecraft, piece of shit that it is, has the right idea.  The designers will, more and more, stop designing games with walls.  They'll stop designing 'games' altogether.

I'm hammering this point fairly repetitively, but since this is a sermon, everything has to be said three times for the congregation to get it.

If the reader can understand what I'm saying:  the future is not in the creation of another 'game' which will simulate or approximate or ejudicate an evening's pleasure.  All games are essentially mazes which have a beginning and an end.

What is wanted, and what is making the greatest headway, isn't the game, it's the environment ... a much, much harder thing to make, since it isn't a maze at all.  It's an expansive format that enables both stamp collection and every other kind of habit its place.  Simultaneously.  Where the walls are not outward-imposed programmer limitations, but self-imposed player limitations.

The sandbox, very rarely understood, is the closest approximation to that ideal that yet exists, limited as it is by a DM's patience.  My personal feeling is that a DM's patience must be the defining factor.  If the players want to collect stamps day in and day out, the DM should not work to get them to do something else.  The DM should work on providing the most phenomenal stamps possible.


ChicagoWiz said...

No disagreement from me - this is one of your better posts.

When the computer is able to do that, the computer will be thinking on its own; it requires intuition, intelligence and an ability to leap beyond just data and numbers. Once that happens... who knows who will be doing what? I'm not one for believing in the Singularity, but should we get to the point you describe, I wonder...

Carl said...

I was expecting a different summation, and was very pleasantly surprised by your last paragraph. I totally agree. I might equivocate a little (as I suspect you might do in actual practice); the DM should not just provide the most phenomenal stamps possible, the DM should also figure out how to make stamp collecting interesting to herself as well as the players. How to work in little bits of intrigue (if thats your thing) or combat (the seedy underbelly of stamp collecting? Getting jumped outside the post office?) or exploration (one of my favorite comic books as a kid involved Huey, Dewey, and Louie Duck having to journey into the jungle to the city of gold to attempt to deliver an undelivered letter with the rarest stamp in the world on it; the post office insisted that they could not keep it if the letter was not at least attempted to be delivered to its intended recipient, even all these years later...).

ChicagoWiz said...

the DM should not just provide the most phenomenal stamps possible, the DM should also figure out how to make stamp collecting interesting to herself as well as the players.

No. Not only just no, but HELL NO.

There is no "should" aside from the DM improving their own skills and reaching to the places they need to go through DM'ing.

I'm not going to figure out stamp collecting, unless there's an appeal. I may be open to looking at it, but I feel no obligation aside from any social obligation that I might feel if a friend says "hey, check this out."

A DM has no requirement that they must accommodate something that they have no interest in or desire. Why put forth the energy in a pandering "should" if the end result isn't something the DM desires? That takes us back to dancing monkey territory.

Skill and fair/accurate representation of their world - those are the only shoulds that a DM has.

Alexis said...

Surely some argument can be made that in a performance art, the audience deserves catering. Nyet?

ChicagoWiz said...

Thus lies the crux of the issue, I think. If one believes that DM'ing is performing art, then the audience is catered to within the abilities, limits and desires of the actor. In a mutual exploration of a world of fantasy, the DM and players are co-explorers of a world that the DM creates and displays to all. If the DM has no desire for the trip, it's not going to be a good one if they go there.

I don't like painting the corners so black and white. Yes, there is a mutual satisfaction to be reached. In all honesty, if a player wanted to explore stamp collecting, and the requirements on me were small, then I wouldn't object. This is so in how I do gods in my world. I have no desire to establish a pantheon, rather I let my players bring the gods forth and we find out where they are going together. So far, it's worked well.

Carl said...

@ChicagoWiz - not sure if I understand which part you are hell no-ing: Indulging the players in stamp collecting at all if you as the DM are not interested in it, or my addendum that IF the DM is going to indulge the players in stamp collecting, she might as well try to make it interesting for herself as well. I suppose if it is the first, the second is a moot point. But you agreed wholeheartedly with the original post (in your first comment), so unless you missed the summation paragraph at the end of Alexis' post, I am a little confused by your position.

Brady said...

You know, when I think about it, there’s only one game that goes into as much detail as a computer and yet provides as much free movement as a DM’s sandbox game. It’s called life, and it’s where God can both provide you with stamp-collecting rules on the spot and never get bored of you doing nothing but collecting stamps 24/7.

I’m a little offended by your Minecraft statement, by the way.

Eric said...

Alexis, have you seen Dwarf Fortress? It procedurally generates entire fantasy worlds.

SupernalClarity said...

Dwarf Fortress also procedurally generates the most infuriatingly difficult control scheme to understand in the history of gaming.

In all seriousness, though, I think Alexis makes an excellent point here. It took me quite a while, as the sole DM for a group that had no D&D experience, to learn that my primary function was not telling my own story or devising my own fun but creating an environment in which my players were capable of doing those things. When you give your group the will and the freedom they need, the fun and the stories will naturally follow.

Alexis, though I'm sure you have no interest in my brief restatement of your thrice-made point, I would like to say that I truly appreciate this blog of yours. Posts such as this, on the nature of gaming and the art of DMing, have given me a whole new perspective on my craft. While I am certainly no "quixotic bastard" running what sounds like the most awesome game world ever, I have undoubtedly been changed by your work for the better.

Keep it up, alright?

ChicagoWiz said...

@Carl - my "no disagreement" with Alexis and my "hell no" to your supposition that the DM has a duty to force himself to enjoy something he wouldn't normally enjoy are not incompatible positions. By how you position the statement "the DM *SHOULD* (emphasis mine) figure how to make stamp collecting interesting to her(?)self", it sounds as if this is a maxim and not merely an indulgence.

Carl said...

I'm going to agree with The Wizard of Chicago. I don't think the DM has an obligation to indulge his or her players.

If you don't like what your players want to do, you're not going to be able to make it fun for them anyway.

drcheckmate said...

I love running sandbox games. I love genres that are largely incompatible with that style. A friend of mine, seeing my quandary, pointed out what seems painfully obvious in retrospect.

A sandbox with out toys is just a box of sand. And a box of sand just isn't that much fun.

As a GM I can provide the stamp-collecting toy for that player. But, I also need to provide toys for everyone else. Whether that toy be the Compass of Infinite Orc Combat Detection, or the Intricate and infinite Web of Courtly Intrigue.

As you say, it is the human that can provide that happy medium where the computer still fails. What I hope from the future is that each new leap forward for the computer inspires the human to one up the machine.

In the end, folks can always move on to a different sand box.