Thursday 14 May 2009

Why we don't let the students write the syllabus

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing points to some interesting commentary on user-designed gaming levels. Writes the game designer:
  • Players subconsciously calculate the cost-to-benefit ratio of content when deciding if it’s fun. For most MMO players, more reward = more fun. (This is a bitch of a lesson to learn, too. “My custom-scripted quest was so incredibly cool! Why aren’t players doing the quest? Well, yes, the reward was a little sub-par, but so what? You’re telling me they aren’t playing it because of THAT? Players can’t be THAT shallow!” Ha ha, newb.)
  • Players aren’t objective reviewers. If you ask them to grade content, they will grade more rewarding content higher than other content even if it isn’t as good by other metrics (like plot, writing, annoyance factor, or originality).
  • Many players spend incredible amounts of time finding ways to min-max the system so they can get more power for less effort. That’s part of the fun for many players. So there are tens of thousands of people actively looking for mistakes, loopholes, and gray areas in your game. All the time.
“Yes yes,” the other designers would say, “those lessons from the live team are interesting, but that isn’t exactly the same situation as user-created content, is it? Nobody can say for sure if user-created quests are problematic.” Maybe, just maybe, users could be convinced to grade content fairly. Maybe they would discover how fun it is to run really well-plotted quests instead of just trying to level up as fast as possible. Maybe players can change their stripes. Nope. MMORPG players are as predictable as the sunrise.

When City of Heroes released its user-created mission generator, it was mere hours before highly exploitative missions existed. Players quickly found the way to min-max the system, and started making quests that gave huge rewards for little effort. These are by far the most popular missions. Actually, from what I can tell, they are nearly the only missions that get used. Aside from a few “developer’s favorite” quests, it’s very hard to find the “fun but not exploitative” missions, because they get rated poorly by users and disappear into the miasma of mediocrity.

Most folks recoil from Nozick's experience machine, and most folks would reckon a hack allowing a direct XP-reset as cheating, but designing and playing levels that achieve the same thing somehow counts as "earned" and fair XP. A lot of this sounds familiar in academia: just replace XP with grades and "custom-scripted quest" with "great essay topic". Things for us to keep in mind as we redesign our major, endorsement, and honours pathways.

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