Fun Theory in EverQuest

bymoridinamael1y5th Feb 20182 comments


This is an excerpt from my personal blog/newsletter that a couple of people said was worth sharing. It was originally written for a handful of close friends, and I have not edited it much. It was either post it as-is or probably never post it, but I think there's something worthwhile to be found here, even in its current form.

I've been thinking about EQ way too much since our podcast on the topic. When I think of EQ, I feel something like the Longing that the Elves of Middle Earth feel for Valinor. I don't feel anything like that for any other phase of my life.

I know, I know, I probably love EQ and want to marry it simply because it was something that I did very intensely for an important phase of my life, and I would have the same exact feelings about WOW if I had been born five years later than I was.

All that said, I think EQ did some things pretty perfectly, and I want real life to be more like EQ.

For example, dungeons and grouping. Groups were hard-limited as six people. This limitation was a blessing in disguise. You can't organically coordinate more than around six people without having something like an "official" group leader. Six people feels like just about the maximum that the human mind can cope with on a one-to-one basis. Research says that small task forces peak in effectiveness at roughly seven people, and I think rounding down to six is safe in a game-world where things can change very quickly.

At the time I don't remember reading anything about the "culture" of EQ, but in retrospect, the culture was actually really great. (I have a feeling that if EQ were popular in 2018 there would be thinkpieces about the "culture of EQ" and this would ruin the culture of EQ in a Hofstadterian fashion.)

You look for a group. You find a group, or a group finds you. You behave in a cordial and competent fashion, and the existing group members will instantly accept you as one of them. This dynamic by itself set off all kinds of primate chemical cascades in my brain and may even be partially responsible for the addictiveness of the game. I recall a relatively consistent feeling of camaraderie in EQ groups. Rarely there would be some member who was a douchebag or a freeloader, and these people were usually abandoned relatively quickly. The system was self-policing with minimal drama and generally operated like a well-oiled machine. If anything stands out, it's a weird sense of "group mind" that could arise at times, where a hundred fluxing details were being coordinated and decisions were being made on-the-fly with no true decisionmaker at the center. I would literally experience a breakdown of self-concept accompanying a strong flow-state, although I lacked the language to describe it back them.

It's difficult to overstate the power and simplicity of EQ group dynamics. The group leader has very few powers, mainly just the ability to invite new members and to disband the group, but there always has to be a group leader. Each member has the crucial political right of Exit, in that they can just leave the group and join another group if they don't like what's happening.

Everyone knew their role, and even in complex and unusual situations, it was common for individual group members to step up to fill roles they weren't used to. There was a singleminded focus on the shared goals, which varied depending on context, but generally involved exp grind, loot grind, etc.

As varied as the dungeons could be in terms of layout, mob type mix, level range, and train-propensity, there was a rhythm that underlay them all.

There's a concept called "Fun Theory" from the Eliezer Yudkowsky corpus, which is mainly about how to optimize human experiences. (The 31 Laws of Fun is a pretty good read that summarizes the underlying ideas.) Another way of looking at it is as a thoughtful attempt to make a Utopia that isn't actually secretly a Dystopia. I've quoted below the Laws of Fun which apply in particular to this discussion.

  • Making a video game easier doesn't always improve it. The same holds true of a life. Think in terms of clearing out low-quality drudgery to make way for high-quality challenge, rather than eliminating work. (High Challenge.)

Strongly relevant to this conversation, viz. how we perceive WOW to have eliminated all the work, and inadvertently thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

  • People should live in a world that fully engages their senses, their bodies, and their brains. This means either that the world resembles the ancestral savanna more than say a windowless office; or alternatively, that brains and bodies have changed to be fully engaged by different kinds of complicated challenges and environments. (Fictions intended to entertain a human audience should concentrate primarily on the former option.) (Sensual Experience.)

Paradoxically, although I was always sitting in a windowless room while playing EQ, my memories contain constructed experiences wherein I was galavanting across the wide-open plains of Norrath, literally hunting and gathering.

  • Our hunter-gatherer ancestors strung their own bows, wove their own baskets and whittled their own flutes; then they did their own hunting, their own gathering and played their own music. Futuristic Utopias are often depicted as offering more and more neat buttons that do less and less comprehensible things for you. Ask not what interesting things Utopia can do for people; ask rather what interesting things the inhabitants could do for themselves - with their own brains, their own bodies, or tools they understand how to build. (Living By Your Own Strength.)

Again, all the fiddly crap involved in necessary traveling, camping or buying items, and so forth was actually part of the fun, and the game suffered from removing it. From a certain point of view, the point of all these things was, at root, social, and if you eliminate a task, no matter how minor, you eliminate a mode of social interaction. If "everything is Status", then whittling your own flute from a gazelle femur and camping your own J-Boots are the same thing, socially speaking - demonstration of effort and skill. And if everybody gets free flutes and free J-Boots, then those objects no longer denote anything important.

  • Trying to compete on a single flat playing field with six billion other humans also creates problems. Our ancestors lived in bands of around 50 people. Today the media is constantly bombarding us with news of exceptionally rich and pretty people as if they lived next door to us; and very few people get a chance to be the best at any specialty. (Dunbar's Function.)

There were usually/often around 2000 other people on your server. You generally didn't see the Really Awesome Folks unless you just happened to glimpse one at a city entrance or something, or perhaps if you frequented the bazaar. In other words, most of your life was actually lived in a near-Dunbar band consisting of your guild and your level-cohort in whatever dungeon you were spending time. A high-end raid was usually around the size of a Dunbar band. I mean, it's literally a raiding party, the most time honored of primate traditions.

Going against my tendency to make things too complicated, I might just say that a critical thing about EQ was that you could accomplish pretty much anything you ever wanted to accomplish with at most fifty people, and that's good. Contrast this with EVE, where people form enormous corporations. It's an understatement to say that the social arrangements in that game are different in the not-good direction.

  • Offering people more options is not always helping them (especially if the option is something they couldn't do for themselves). Losses are more painful than the corresponding gains, so if choices are different along many dimensions and only one choice can be taken, people tend to focus on the loss of the road not taken. Offering a road that bypasses a challenge makes the challenge feel less real, even if the cheat is diligently refused. It is also a sad fact that humans predictably make certain kinds of mistakes. Don't assume that building more choice into your Utopia is necessarily an improvement because "people can always just say no". This sounds reassuring to an outside reader - "Don't worry, you'll decide! You trust yourself, right?" - but might not be much fun to actually live with. (Harmful Options.)

There's a lot packed into this one, but I'll focus on the class choices. I think there were probably slightly too many classes in EQ. I don't think there needed to be Paladins and Shadowknights. I think Wiz/Ench/Mage could have been consolidated into two classes, you pick how you want to split the powers. Ditto for Shaman/Druid/Bard. There's also an argument that EQ had just the right amount of classes to start with, and then messed up by adding more classes later, which were definitely redundant.

I think this criticism is somewhat borne out by the incessant whining about class balance. On the other hand, humans gonna complain.

  • Brains are some of the most complicated things in the world. Thus, other humans (other minds) are some of the most complicated things we deal with. For us, this interaction has a unique character because of the sympathy we feel for others - the way that our brain tends to align with their brain - rather than our brain just treating other brains as big complicated machines with levers to pull. Reducing the need for people to interact with other people reduces the complexity of human existence; this is a step in the wrong direction. For example, resist the temptation to simplify people's lives by offering them artificially perfect sexual/romantic partners. (Interpersonal Entanglement.)

I really regret playing a Necromancer in EQ. I thought I wanted to solo so I could level up quickly, but this was born of a core misunderstanding of the game. In retrospect, I think I should have played an Enchanter, or a Cleric, something practically useless outside of a group.

That said, I played a Wizard first, didn't like it, and chose the Necro in reaction to that. Didn't realize that what I disliked was "being a Wizard", not "grouping".

  • In this present world, there is an imbalance between pleasure and pain. An unskilled torturer with simple tools can create worse pain in thirty seconds, than an extremely skilled sexual artist can create pleasure in thirty minutes. One response would be to remedy the imbalance - to have the world contain more joy than sorrow. Pain might exist, but not pointless endless unendurable pain. Mistakes would have more proportionate penalties: You might touch a hot stove and end up with a painful blister; but not glance away for two seconds and spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. The people would be stronger, less exhausted. This path would eliminate mind-destroying pain, and make pleasure more abundant. Another path would eliminate pain entirely. Whatever the relative merits of the real-world proposals, fictional stories cannot take the second path. (Serious Stories.)

This is pretty much how EQ works. Losing hours of effort due to a single death really hurt in a scream-"fuck"-and-throw-things way but all-in-all it was probably not as bad as any given stubbed toe or hammered thumb. That seems like about the right level of penalty for a mistake, to give it psychological weight without making it "mind-destroying." Notably, that's MUCH more penalty than you'll find in much games. I'm not familiar with the level of loss intrinsic in a death in WOW but my sense is that it's much milder.

So I mentioned a few thousand words ago that I want real life to be more like EverQuest. Let's think about this - let's go through all the ways in which real life can be improved.

  • First of all, "experience" was a great proxy for any kind of quantity that tracks or correlates well with your progress. Humans love this, for lots of reasons. I think our command-and-control neural systems really benefit from something external and concrete like this. Now, if only there was something in my real life that -

[insert WordPress chart of blog viewership climbing in a gradual, satisfying way]

Oh. Well, that makes a lot of sense.

(Bonus: I've previously described the "gamification" of the oil business at [redacted], where bonuses were tied to company performance along three easily quantified, transparent metrics, which were updated monthly. So [redacted] gets the "Sufficiently Like EQ Seal of Approval.")

  • Grouping dynamics? Well, it strikes me that the success of a startup can be approximated by how much it looks like an EQ group. Small number of people, each of whom knows their role, none of whom is a freeloader or a douchebag? Check, check, check. One de facto leader with ultimate hiring/firing ability? Looks good to me. Employees free to leave at will? Naturally. Nothing else artificially constraining the group dynamics? Seems to work.
  • And as the Startup grows into a bigger company, does it grow to resemble a powerful EQ raiding guild? Does it maintain strongly consolidated leadership? Does it have tight hiring requirements, only bringing in people it needs? Can the leadership command not just obedience, but loyalty? At raid-time, is the hierarchy sufficiently flat that the leader's commands can be quickly responded to, but not so flat that the leader is inundated with communications from every member?

Those were examples of the type, "Here is a case where real life being like EQ led to a good outcome." Now let's look at places where real life is not like EQ and how we might fix it.

  • First of all, well, 99% of companies are nothing like EQ groups or EQ guilds. At all. Rather than a tightly ordered group of mutually interdependent professionals, it's more normal for large companies to become increasingly sprawling and siloized, with individual workers just doing a job mechanically and not feeling like they're really part of anything. In fact, the current system incentivizes looking busy while accomplishing the minimum acceptable amount of work. So, that should be fixed.
  • What is the real-life equivalent of camping your own J-Boots? It seems like a lot of older people eventually become tinkerers or craftsmen of some kind through some natural process. There's an instinct to make your own stuff. I think we benefit in embracing this instinct. The antithesis to becoming a craftsman or artist is buying nice things to serve as tokens of achievement, which is such a well-known failure mode as to barely be worth mentioning.
  • So, modern life is pretty far away from hunting and foraging. The closest thing might be your commute to and from work, which I think doesn't actually count because it's completely passive, you're not interacting with your environment, you don't really have to be alert. A total lack of Hill Giants. Now, it's not "thrilling" so much as it is "extremely unpleasant" to actually live in a place where you need to be scared for your life on a regular basis. So my instinct would be to fix this problem by going the opposite direction, toward providing intrinsic reward for paying attention and being engaged with your surroundings. For example, all those "zombies" games you used to see people playing on campus. I think our floor in the [redacted, name of dorm that we all lived in together] even did something like this once. You constantly had to be alert that you were being stalked, and simultaneously you're stalking somebody else. Other examples might include those smartphone games that are location-aware that let you capture territory. But honestly, I tried one of those and got bored after a day. (As a side note, once we have Magic Leap, then we can just literally have Hill Giants randomly appear in real life.)

I'm not out of ideas so much as out of time - I really enjoy thinking about EQ, as you can see, and it weirdly dovetails with my obsession with optimizing my life.