Friday, July 27, 2007

How Unfair is Unfair?

There's lots of discussion possible about the subject of fairness in MMORPGs. Some say that since life isn't fair, then neither should a MMORPG depicting life in some form; others will simply refuse to play a game where success is a result of random or arbitrary events that aren't fair to the player's skills or commitment. Of course, everyone will agree that giving a Sword of Doom to a starting character is unfair, but exactly where does a line need to be drawn between keeping the game simple and fun and making it fair for everyone?

Basically, if a monster has one chance in ten to use an ability to instant kills the character, it's unfair. If Warriors can deal ten times the damage mages can, while retaining the best defenses, it's unfair. If Joey gets a red lollipop while I get a blue one, it's unfair. But here's the problem, if you give Karl a red lollipop too, then Joey will complain that he got a smaller piece of the cake last time, and he deserves a redder lollipop for that. Everyone knows it in the MMORPG industry, and they'll repeat it : you can't please everyone. As a corollary, I would like to submit the more people you try to please, the less will be satisfied with the results; those who get the nerfbat feel threatened, and those who were already balanced will feel forgotten.

So, how much unfairness do you need before things get unfair? It depends on who you ask, but I would say, not very much. Older gamers will remember the old days of the original Warcraft and Command and Conquer games, where fairness was mostly attained by making every side basically the same. Games like Warlords Battlecry tried to break the mold, and had various sides, each with their own powers and abilities, and most of them had exploits allowing you to gain quite unfair advantages; those that didn't were considered too weak to play in most cases.

These days, the easiest way to get good balance is to do your best, and then ask the fans to break the game during beta. And break they will, since number crunching, exploit-finding MMORPG players are a dime a dozen during betas; so much so that by the time the game ships, players will already know the shortest route to any point, whether it be some place or some power.

Of course, this doesn't answer the question of how much unfairness you need until things become actually unfair; I don't think anyone could answer that question correctly. It's all a matter of what type of game the player wants to play. In the end, just make sure that the fairness follows the game's philosophy, and it will likely attract people who want to play it.

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