Perfection would be a fatal flaw for evolution

Delving into the zeitgeist of the week, Brian Green’s got an excellent blog post up on The Innovation Paradox. Alongside Melmoth’s dictionary heroics I pondered the line “I think most thinking people agree that MMOs have evolved over time.” Obviously that’s “evolved” in the general “gradual change over time” sense, but I thought it might be fun to consider MMOGs in terms of evolutionary biology, an idea with only two flaws: firstly everything I know about evolution comes from flipping through Wikipedia for five minutes (this is how I know evolution is a quadruped with four legs, a heart and a beak for eating honey, which lives in large rivers such as the Amazon), and secondly any posting about evolutionary biology and innovation in MMOs tackles a ferociously controversial subject which almost nobody can agree on. And evolution (aaah, I confounded your expectations and from thence the humorous allelomorph arose).

Something that struck me from an Introduction to Evolution was:
“Evolution is not progress. Evolution is not “improvement”; it is simply change. These changes can be positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the situation. Evolution may seem progressive at times, because beneficial traits tend to out-compete less helpful traits under selection. However, evolution does not aspire toward any goal; there is no such thing as ‘backward evolution’ or ‘de-evolution’ because there is also no ‘forward evolution’ — evolution does not move in any particular direction.”

Change “the situation” to “the player’s perspective”, and that’s an interesting take on it. Obviously there’s an instant problem in that changes in MMOGs tend to be deliberate design decisions rather than random mutations (despite the theories of forum denizens about the number of monkeys and typewriters employed by dev teams), but as soon as you try and map that back to evolutionary biology then terms like “eugenics” and “intelligent design” start bubbling around and we have to deploy the emergency inflatable badger. Look everyone, a badger! Focus on the badger now! Look at the lovely badger!

Phew. Think we got away with that.

Another interesting snippet was about peacock tails. Evolution has resulted in big, flashy tails, despite the fact that they don’t instantly appear to help out in “survival of the fittest” stakes; they’re a hindrance if anything, but (and I paraphrase ever so slightly here, apologies for the highly technical terms) chicks dig the crazy feathers. I’m not sure if that works a parable for the importance of graphics in a game (people might say gameplay is king and flashy graphics aren’t everything, but… chicks dig the crazy feathers), but it’s kinda fun.

Then there’s role of environment; traits which are highly desirable in one set of circumstances prove catastrophic in another, typified by island birds that thrive with an abundant source of food and no predators but are virtually defenceless when predators do turn up. Has the landscape changed around the traditional MMOG as feral online consoles and browser games snap at its heels, and if so is it destined to become extinct like the Dodo, barely cling on thanks to conservation efforts like the Kakapo (hero of one of the greatest moments of the recent “Last Chance to See” with Mark Carwardine & Stephen Fry), or evolve a new defence mechanism?

Weaving in another strand, there was another excellent post on Vicarious Existence about the danger of nostalgia, which made me wonder if, in a hypothetical future where a very distant ancestor of the Kakapo had learned to fly to evade predators, you’d get a couple of them sitting on a branch reminiscing:
“Man, remember when we walked everywhere? That was brilliant wasn’t it, none of this knackering flapping business, why does nobody walk any more? Things were so much better in the old days, I can’t understand why it got much worse, let’s start walking again Geoff, come on!”

8 thoughts on “Perfection would be a fatal flaw for evolution

  1. Stabs

    Evolution is a strange concept because it’s not precisely about survival of the fittest. It’s about passing on your genes.

    With dodos there may once have been fast agile dodos but the fat ones got all the chicks. So that’s how they bred out. Same with peacock – having a load of bling on your bum is worth being occasionally eaten by crocodiles since it gets you laid so much.

    In today’s human population positive evolutionary traits are never using condoms and multiple sexual partners, which is not exactly a survival oriented approach to life.

    The analogy suffers somewhat when extended to games partly because we don’t really understand evolution fully and we don’t really understand MMO success fully.

    With MMOs in particular you see people jump up and down pronouncing that X must be the One True Path because WoW did it. However that’s actually backwards, WoW would probably have succeeded with any of the various approaches. It succeeded as a hardcore raider game in 2005, it succeeded as a pvp game in 2007 (the year the hardcore did arenas and the casuals farmed AV), it’s succeeding as a casual raid game now. But you see people saying you have to aim squarely at the casuals because that’s what WoW does, forgetting that WoW was just as successful when it didn’t aim at them. And as if WoW would have failed had it been a sandbox rather than a diku. As Brian says it’s kind of random.

    I don’t think even WoW know quite what they do right. And it’s by no means certain that the secret MMO project will be the same kind of runaway success.

    As for nostalgia that’s truly odd since almost all the games people feel nostalgic for are still going. Want to play UO or EQ? Google them, download and play then.

  2. Melmoth

    “having a load of bling on your bum is worth being occasionally eaten by crocodiles since it gets you laid so much.”

    A motto to live by, I think we can all agree.

  3. Zoso Post author

    @Psychochild Clearly a much better understanding of evolution there, apt to the blog title too! Excellent stuff.

    In an earlier draft it was “changes in MMOGs are deliberate design decisions” rather than “tend to be”, but with such complex systems unintended consequences are never too far away.

    Something I started considering was how players act as an environment in steering game evolution, which gets into emergent gameplay and a whole other post (or ten), so I thought it was better to focus on bling on the bum instead.

  4. Andrew

    Thanks for the link, Psychochild. I love this sort of topic, as evolutionary computing is a nerd passion of mine.

    I just wanted to address a line in Stabs’ reply:

    The analogy suffers somewhat when extended to games partly because we don’t really understand evolution fully and we don’t really understand MMO success fully.

    I don’t think that a lack of understanding impacts the analogy at all, in fact in only serves to further reinforce it. As I mention at the tail end of my own article, the MMO genre exhibits many of the traits of a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Conveniently, life-based evolution *IS* also a CAS, and one of the primary results of this understanding is that the behaviors of the two systems cannot be understood by just looking at their discrete parts in isolation because all of the behaviors are emergent (due to their inter-connectivity).

    I absolutely love all of this stuff, if it wasn’t obvious.

  5. Jason

    Stabs said, “Want to play UO or EQ? Google them, download and play then.”

    If only it were that easy. I’ve played the emulators, they aren’t EQ. I’ve played EQ on the SOE servers, it isn’t even EQ anymore, not the EQ people are nostalgic for. About the only way to play that old EQ is to buy a Mac and play on the Mac server. That’s just one too many hoops to jump through.

  6. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Zoso wrote:
    Something I started considering was how players act as an environment in steering game evolution….

    This is interesting. In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel (which is a great source of MMO design topics to ponder), the author talks about how human behavior has affected development toward characteristics, specially characteristics that would be contrary to what increases propagation in the wild. The simple example given was that humans would prefer to eat larger strawberries, so the plants that produced larger berries with seeds that survived the digestive tract would flourish. An example of contradictory characteristics is our preferences for non-poisonous almonds, which means that they would be non-toxic for other animals, if we don’t protect the tree. Or, how we prefer wheat that doesn’t scatter its seeds so quickly.

    This flows well into an argument about short term vs. long term fun. It means that MMOs, which are often seen as long-term investments, do better by focusing on the short term and giving players a quick jolt of fun. This behavior works well in some media (like arcade games or traditional games with all the costs up front), but in an MMO you have to keep stringing players along with little jolts instead of building for the long term. Players tend to gravitate to the short-term wins instead of more interesting long-term gameplay. (A notable exception being EVE.)

    This is one of my theories about why many newer MMOs don’t stick, because even if they get the initial short-term bit of fun right, they often have no long term plans as witnessed by empty content at high levels. Wow may have had the same problem, but by now its age and popularity allow people to ignore those sins.

  7. Stabs

    “Wow may have had the same problem”

    No, I don’t think it did early on.

    I remember the end game as a mass of non-raiding noobs running UBRS and Strat in the hope of getting our sets and some Fire Res item for when we someday got a raid guild.

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