Creating the environment
During a conversation the other night with a fellow Final Fantasy XIV player, a statement was made: “It’s not the developers’ fault how players behave.” Which intrigued me, because it’s a sentiment that I see a lot, and one that makes logical sense. It’s also one that’s almost entirely wrong.
Obviously, developers are not coming into your house at night to tell you how the game should be played, or including notes in the instruction manual. Although that would be kind of funny from a perverse standpoint: “press A to jump, but don’t do it in level 3 because that’s not the right way to play.” But the developers are totally telling you how to play, and if you’re breaking the game or playing in a way that’s not fun for you or anyone, that’s entirely the fault of the development team.
It all comes down to the environment you create and what you encourage. Because that’s what tells you how to play the game anyway.
The behavior we were discussing, specifically, was running a specific dungeon over and over for one sort of currency reward. At a glance, that doesn’t look like anything the developers had a hand in. Yes, this dungeon rewarded the appropriate currency; at the same time, a lot of other dungeons rewarded the same currency, and the only thing that made this special was that you could very quickly move from the start of the dungeon to the end. But the impatience of players isn’t the fault of developers.
What is the fault of developers, though, is putting in content that required large amounts of this one currency and making this the most efficient way to obtain it. It’s entirely upon the development team that you both needed to get as much of this as possible as fast as possible and that there’s only one place to do so efficiently. Blaming players for responding to this by doing exactly this isn’t entirely unfair, but it’s also neglecting the fact that this environment was the result of conscious choices made during design.
I’ve mentioned before that the nature of games is to provide obstacles for players to overcome, and that’s entirely true. If you reach the end point without having had to do anything, it’s not a very good game. At the same time, those challenges act as fences in a way, herding players into particular strategies. If it turns out that there’s only one strategically viable option, is it the player’s fault for just choosing that one option over and over?
Games like Pokémon have long struggled with the fact that some monster types are just plain better than others due to a combination of having more powerful attacks and less dangerous vulnerabilities. Dragons were long considered to be overpowered simply because their vulnerabilities were few and their attacks were powerful. Bugs, meanwhile, have a dearth of really powerful attacks and a host of common weaknesses that limit their overall desirability. And yet the game is also designed around this fact; bug-type creatures evolve early and quickly lose their appeal, while dragons are rare and generally require a great deal of effort to acquire.
Now, if the designers didn’t want you to use a lot of dragons in the high end… well, that would be a problem. And the slow erosion of the dragon power level has been a regular event largely because of this. But it’s never been treated as a failing of the players, because honestly, it’s not. Players are responding to the environment they have, not the one the developers want.
“Right, but you don’t have to do these things!” Except that you sort of do. I’m all for embracing the idea that sub-optimal play is indeed a valid option, that in games that allow you to customize your character you can choose a path that’s slightly less efficient but more appealing to you. The problem is that there’s a wide gulf between avoiding min-max tendencies and playing in a way that’s completely indefensible.
In Magic: the Gathering, playing a deck that’s at least partly blue usually results in a stronger deck. Blue often winds up becoming very powerful as a color, and it’s been an ongoing project for the developers to keep its power in manageable territory. In the early days of the game, though, everyone either played blue or lost. Blue was so strong thanks to its particular card makeup that ignoring it simply wasn’t an option; there was no way to compensate for the sheer amount of power derived from a color that could draw three cards at a whim and take an extra turn without batting an eye.
That wasn’t the play environment that the designers wanted, and so it got changed. Repeatedly. Cards were banned, costs were tweaked, and the color is still riotously powerful in older formats. But it wasn’t the fault of players for choosing to play in a way that made wins possible.
Playing sub-optimally means that you might play a class that deals 5% less damage than another, all else being equal. People will still choose to play the class because they like how it feels and that 5% isn’t such a big difference. But no one is going to choose to play a damage-dealing class that deals 50% less damage than another damage-dealing class unless they want a challenge. If you give one class massively more damage than anyone else, you’ve created an environment that favors that class to the point that the others may as well not exist.
Create achievements with tangible rewards that require really odd conditions and players will go to great lengths to fulfill those odd conditions. Ask for a whole lot of currency quickly and give players a single way to acquire it? They’re going to spam that one way until the end of days. If your rewards are structured to strongly encourage a specific behavior, it’s not the players’ fault for doing what’s necessary to get those rewards. And if you don’t like what’s being done, as a designer, you have an obligation to change the design.
If players are choosing to fixate on one way of doing things, that’s their decision. But if you’re creating an environment that encourages that specific playstyle? That’s not on the players.