All roads, howsoe’er they diverge, lead to Rome

A few years back there was a flurry of “cross-code debate” on rugby forums, mostly fuelled by Rugby League players switching to Rugby Union (to the casual observer, both Union and League may look like a bunch of people running around and chucking a funny shaped ball, but they’re different sports with different rules. To suggest they’re pretty much the same thing to an aficionado would be like suggesting World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online are pretty much the same thing, i.e. generally true in a fairly broad sense, and a sure-fire way of starting a massive flamewar.) Being debates on web forums, a tiny fraction of the posts were genuinely interested in the similarities and differences between the two codes and how players adapted from one to the other, and the other 99.7% were “my sport’s better than your sport, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” endlessly paraphrased. One particular participant was awfully fond of “convergent and divergent thinking”; either he was a cognitive psychologist, or that’s what the “random” option of Wikipedia had thrown up that morning. Very broadly, it seems convergent thinking is narrowing down a range of options to find the single best solution, whereas divergent thinking produces many different ideas from a stimulus. (In the unlikely event that anyone cares, the rugby conclusion was that Rugby League requires divergent thinking, Union promotes convergent thinking. Also just the opposite. And sports involving divergent decision making are better to watch. And also worse. And my dad could beat your dad in a fight.)

On to games, though, before everyone gets bored. If it isn’t too late already. The journey from pencil and paper RPG to computer RPG to MMO has generally been one of convergence. There’s an Encampment of Generic Monstrous Humanoids threatening the local Village of Friendly Villagers, Neville the Mayor wants you to take care of it. In a pencil and paper RPG, your actions are limited only by your imagination (and that of the gamesmaster, and possibly the rulebook). You could kill ’em all, or sneak in and assassinate the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and hope that panics the rest of them, or try and reason with the Chief, or threaten him, or you could poison the river they use for fresh water, or pose as a manifestation of their deity and command them to leave, or embark on a far-reaching campaign to psychologically unbalance the Chief Generic Monstrous Humanoid and convince him there are elements within the encampment working against him, causing a bitter and divisive civil war which you and the villagers can easily mop up after.

In a computer RPG, you’re limited by the imagination of the designers and the capability of the game engine. Maybe you’re down to about three of the options, Reason With The Chief (charisma check), Sneak In And Assassinate (stealth check), Kill ‘Em All (god will know his own, check).

In a typical MMO… well, it’s going to be Kill ‘Em All, isn’t it? Or Kill Ten Of ‘Em (then ten slightly different ones, then ten other different ones, then the named one), or possibly Kill ‘Em All, Wait For ‘Em To Respawn, Then Kill ‘Em All Again ‘Cos The Boss Didn’t Drop The Right Loot Last Time.

That’s just the absurdly generalised version, obviously, and no reflection on relative merits; teaming up with chums to battle a legion of Generic Monstrous Humanoids can be far more fun that arguing with a GM over whether putting a sheet over your head makes you a convincing representation of Neville, Generic Deity of Generic Monstrous Humanoids. It may seem obvious that the pencil and paper approach is the best with a wealth of choice, because choice is good, right? Well, it depends on the choices; from Stephen Fry’s talk on The Future of Public Service Broadcasting:

I remember Hugh and I wrote a sketch in which I played a waiter who recognised a diner in my restaurant as a Tory broadcasting minister. I clapped him on the shoulder and told him how much I admired his policies of choice, consumer choice, freedom of choice. I then was horrified to notice that he had only a silver knife and fork for cutlery at his table. ‘No, no, they’re fine,’ said the puzzled politician. But my character the waiter raced off and soon returned with an enormous bin liner which I emptied over his table. It contained thousands and thousands of those white plastic coffee-stirrers. ‘There you are,’ I screamed dementedly at him, virtually rubbing his face in the heap of white plastic, ‘now you’ve got choice. Look at all that choice. They may all be shit, but look at the choice!’

That set me thinking about other choices in MMOs; choices between character classes, choices in talent or power selection, choice in which spells you cast in combat, but that’s another post for another time…