Stagnation, whether perceived or actual, is a common concern in any game. Hell, it’s a common concern in anything really; and, what’s worse is it seems to be a shared concern among members of the community right now. Bloggers, game designers, and websites that report news about tabletop and video games seem to be enraptured by a general ennui about the roleplaying genre. Just off the top of my head, in the previous month or so of articles, I have read a diatribe about what constitutes an RPG; a discussion about Square Enix’s demise; Syncaine, Doone, Raph Koster, and other bloggers discussing the post mortem of World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Star Wars Galaxy, Lord of the Rings, et al; and, all the while, various forums and community discussions question whether D&D 4e killed the brand or is the greatest game since pong.
I realize that I wrote last weekend that I would be writing about physical combat this week; however, as stagnation is such a buzz word at the moment, I feel its better to discuss what it really is, how it works, and possible means of avoidance.
Starting off the most shallow and pedantic means of defining this term, stagnation is the noun form of the word stagnate that means, per dictionary.com meaning 3, “to stop developing, growing, progressing, or advancing.” Yet, tabletop games sales numbers increased in the 4th Quarter of the 2010 year (source: ICv2.com); however, the market is becoming increasingly level among competing games it seems. The days of one brand ruling the market (as in video games it seems) are past. This seems especially true from members of the audience that want something new, and seem to be home-brewing content instead of making massive buys of it. As Thistle Games writes in their discussing of sales, it seems like “lower costs means more accessibility” (source: thistlegames.com, blogpost 4/1/11).
The actual engagement with the gaming world seems to be decreasing to a “what next insane feat can my character perform” mentality. This seems common in the CCG scene wherein the 90s, people screamed out in ever raging nerd glory: “MY BLUE DECK HAS LEVIATHAN;” tabletop games of the mid 2000s: “oh, yeah, well my half-black dragon mage/fighter is now a dragon shaman, and a Strifeleader of Cyric;” to finally the video game market: “I’ve got all purps for my Resto, Feral, and Boomkin set!” In other words, the phenomenon is not so much in the creativity of the story or the performance of the character in the world, but is specifically intrinsic with badassery, for lack of a better term. It’s a complete divergence from the reasons why the RPG genre was so damn cool, which was the fact you were participating in the telling of story and the actions therein changed the outcome.
The above paragraph describes the path to formulaic approaches. If you want a Magic: the Gathering deck, you go to a website, read the concept and approach, go buy the cards, and make it. The player of that deck did not engage the game; the person who conceived the idea did. Same goes for World of Warcraft, RIFT, Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age 2, et al., find a build for a character, craft it to specifications (the maths are done for you), and hit the buttons right. Again, the developer of the build and the person that created it are the ones that engaged the game, not the person that used it. In no means is this to demean a person for playing the game like this, but recognizing it for what it is provides insight into the major problem: the mainstream market is stagnate (I know, who gives a damn about the mainstream right? FREE PUBLISHERS FTW! This is a problem, too. It’s just an avoidance recognition to games that just seem old now).
I fully realize that people enjoy these games as hobbies or ways to avoid thought or relax from their normal obligations in life. Subpar mechanics with tired approaches that have been done until the end of the world reign supreme and this creates stagnation. The world and the system do not matter as much as what you can do. In the long run, this is a dangerous approach because when the player grows weary of investing dollars, that person is lost as a member of the community.
Why Does It Get Old?
Tabletops, MMOs, computers, and game consoles all have something in common that is not recognized often enough: they are an investment in the designer’s company. By paying $X, there is an expectation of return from the design’s contents. This is similar to the stock market, individual puts an amount of money in a company to start it out, and expects a return on this money from the company’s product(s). In the case of some companies (see the MySpace drama going on right now as an example), there becomes new ideas or innovations that entirely obliterate the old model. Facebook offers better content in an easier to use interface without as much crap on it. EVERYONE uses it because of the simplicity of its design and it starts growing and growing and growing to the point where everyone (or nearly everyone) has at least an entry on it. In the background, MySpace (the beginning of the social media world) begins dwindling. Its returns falter, investors pull out, money dries up, layoffs happen, and soon the company will disappear.
That’s exactly how an RPG seems to work under the current model. Player buys the starting books, materials, or game box as the entry fee to the startup. World of Warcraft’s a wonderfully simple example here, because of the systems it combines and the leveling pace; it even has two investment points! Its initial investment is the leveling content from adventuring through the game world, to PvP startup, to crafting. At this point, the player’s character is 1s all around. In terms of investment ($70ish dollars plus $15/mo), this seems like a high amount of content and the returns are high: multiple levels a day, higher masteries of crafting, new gear and abilities. This investment point ends at the game’s level cap and forces the player to invest in another part of the game, either PvE or PvP endgame. These are riskier investments, but in both cases the startup is not based on monetary value of the initial product. Instead this startup value is based off personal desire and time.
The ultimate side effect of this is that, if the content is too hard, the player does not get enough a return on their investment of desire and time. If its too easy, content is gobbled up and the return is eaten through. Either way, this puts the impetus on the game designer to continually create product, and like investment returns the development of product can see greatly diminishing returns over the life of a game because of an invariable amount of creative drain (people find new jobs, others burnout, still others leave the project for another).
Members of the community seem to call this point, in other players at least, the burnout stage. This is a pointed, if imprecise, critique of the player. It’s far more common that the individual has reached the point where their investment is not returning the amount they desire or perceive that it should.
It is more than moderately ironic is that the response seems to be offering more of the same with shinier or updated packaging. Great examples of this are RIFT, Cataclysm expansion, Pathfinder, most d20 spinoffs, most Magic: the Gathering expansions, and even White Wolf’s World of Darkness change. The advertisement for these should, for clarity’s sake, at least include the following: “[Insert New Product Name Here] is now 25% different than the edition or game before it! Buy more now!” Then, the investment cycle for that game starts again. It is no wonder at this point that stagnation occurs in RPGs because of the collective laziness of designers to consider greater points of interactivity or investment in their product. Whether this is a result of the increasing marketization of the gaming hobby or the result of a lack of inspiration I am uncertain.
In either case, one should be honest with themselves, and introspective enough to discern the points at which are going to become stagnant and implement a plan to fix them.
Digging a New Drainage Ditch, or Letting New Water In
One of the most common ways to stave off stagnation seems to be hiring a new creative director or changing the design team of a product. Obviously employee attrition will occur, but the common path is not always the best, but it is sometimes the most cost effective. It is far harder to challenge a successful design team to consider their product’s flaws and points at which stagnation may occur, because people are willing to say, “Good job,” and begin thinking about the next product. It should be easily recognizable that the oldest content will be the most maligned content, because eventually people will be tired of it.
Designers should be unafraid of changing this content or the mechanics associated with it, considering the stories, lore, and system itself. A great example was Forgotten Realms’ Dalelands. I could probably write another post, longer than this, about the flavor and strengths of AD&D Second Edition’s Realms products and how Greenwood, Boyd, and other developers kept the product feeling fresh. The Dales were as varied as the Realms themselves, and events could spark a million different stories: 1.) the Zhents in Daggerdale; 2.) Elminster and Storm Silverhand in Shadowdale; 3.) the merchant houses of Sembia in Tasseldale. Of course this list could continue, but your character would be faced with developing opinions on these places and people. They could hear of Drizz’t Do’Urden, the good Drow of the North (about whom my thief said: “Good, I hope he changes’em all; more money in the undermarkets for us, mates.”)
What truly hurt the Realms in this edition was the AD&D system, because of how powerful a character could become. Eventually, they could only challenge Elminster, or visit the planes, turning their eyes from the intrinsic beauty of the Realms. This is a flaw that must be avoided, people said at the time. In the years since, however, I have not yet seen a game to do so: D&D 3/3.5 edition had the same problems, World of Warcraft is going through those right now, and so forth. It’s an ignoble end, and one that could have been solved if someone might have asked: “how do we test players,” instead of “what other cool shit can our players do?”
In the end, stagnation is going to occur. The more emphasis a game places on its designers to continually develop new and better things only increases the speed at which it occurs. RIFT and Warhammer Online are the best two examples of this, as World of Warcraft, which probably could have suffered the same effect, was the beneficiary of the world’s biggest nerd bloom (think algal blooms here): great, polished game plus great, forward thinking developers plus popular culture nerdgasm plus luck. Designers may never see the sort of tide again for a product.
Avoiding stagnation is not easy, and requires critical thought; however, this facet cannot only save companies, RPG products, and the like, it can also save your game. It requires the evaluation of a product continually, listening to all forms of feedback about that product, being unafraid of making a change and sticking to it, offering accessibility to new content that involves both new and old ideas, and emphasizing the player’s interactivity with the game. It has been said that the artist is most critical of his creation, the same should be true here. By showing that you, as someone that wants to sell product or develop worlds, care, you demonstrate to the player that their investment’s return will be good. If you fail on that, you may find yourself similar to MySpace.