2012/02/22

Changing The Rules, Keeping The Fiction?

Introduction

Artwork for TCG Hecatomb by Kari Christensen.
Traditional games (e.g. the game of chess) usually keep the same rules. There are of course some variations in gameplay mechanics but those are perceived mostly as additions to the core rules, not their complete (or even irreversible in terms of organized play) rewriting. New games (videogames and lots of board, card, role-playing and miniature games) don't have such stable rules. MMORPGs go through many changes during their existence, from nearly constant updates of content (fiction) to rebalancing tweaks in rules. In this article I will focus on games which players perceive as a finished product. I will try to describe how players feel about change in these types of games and how these changes affect the whole gameplay. Throughout this article I will be using Juul's (2005) definition of (video)games as "real rules and fictional worlds".


From Errata to New Editions

First editions of board and card games are frequently plagued with something we could call misprinting, unclear definition or even a loophole. Being an early player of such a new game often means that you beta-test the rules in many unprecedented situations. These early mistakes in rules are usually repaired with so-called errata (originally a term used for list of faults in books made in publishing process). Their impact on gameplay is small as only a few early players had the chance to perceive them as the original set of rules. Some of these errata are made even before the game is shipped to first customers and are included in form of extra sheets of paper in first edition of the game (first edition of board game Mansions of Madness is riddled with many mistakes, some of them even leave certain game scenarios completely unplayable).

As a game grows with expansions, publishers are often forced to take more drastic measures to issue their control on how the game is played. In the case of the now defunct (2005-2006) trading card game (TCG or CCG) Hecatomb (link to BGG) the publisher, Wizards of the Coast (WotC), raised a minimal amount of cards in a tournament deck form 40 to 60 cards in response to a new expansion set. Although this sudden change of rules had only minimal impact on the fiction (deck size is usually a very abstract rule which isn't rooted in fictional worlds) it raised some questions. Players on forums were trying to make sense of this move and were asking the representatives of the publisher about their motivations. Wizards were justifying the move as a way of rebalancing the game, but some players saw it as a way of doing more money for the company as building a competitive deck with 40 cards is cheaper than buliding it with 60 cards (there were also more different arguments about the new rules, original discussion is still available at New Floor Rules!).

New editions of games (or just rules) can take many different shapes and forms. Publisher Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) is known for a partial rebranding of some of their games. With the launch of a new format of card game distribution (FFG take a different approach to TCG/CCG and call it LCG) they renamed and restarted their former CCG games. New editions of A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu have roughly the same rules but they differ in fictional worlds because they have different cards (although some of the original cards from discontinued editions are playable under the new rules and a fair amount of them is reprinted under the new edition).

Publisher WotC took more drastic measures with their spin-off D&D Miniatures game. In a response to a new edition of core Dungeons & Dragons RPG game in 2008 WotC completely changed the rules of the miniatures game. Whole gameplay mechanics were rebuilt and stats of all miniatures were reworked to these new rules. WotC did a really bad job in terms of keeping the fictional world in its original state. As Juul states: "we can treat the fictional world as something that the game cues the player into imagining and that players then imagine in their own ways." (2005: 2-3) Rules interact with these imaginations to a certain degree, changes in subjective feelings of difficulty or meta-gaming power of individual miniatures can alter the way we think about the fictional worlds. After the revision of D&D Minis many powerful and popular miniatures such as the Duergar Champion, Helmed Horror, Mercenary General or Fire Giant Forgepriest lost their former influence in both the fictional world and the meta-game. Their status of the most powerful characters vanished literally in a blink of an eye. 2nd edition rules came also with some significant changes to the fiction itself (e.g. new factions, new types of elemental damage and no more morale saves). By using this example I tried to point out that even changes which at first glance seem to only matter from the perspective of rules can affect the way we perceive the fictional worlds and the whole game.

Bans and Restrictions

Bans and restrictions in card, miniature and board games have a similar effect on fictional worlds as new editions of rules. The scale is of course much smaller as only a few cards, miniatures... are subject to bans and restrictions. Publishers approach bans in two different manners: permanent ban/restriction or revision/restat.

Permanent ban cuts out the given character (etc.) from the majority of playing modes and effectively removes it from the fictional world (or rather changes the way players imagine the fictional world). Although banned game components are useless for most players, they are able to achieve a specific popularity in the meta-game. Professional players and other meta-gamers are usually well informed about which game components are banned/restricted at the moment. Ban lists regularly contain only a small number of game components (e.g. the banned list of A Game of Thrones LCG lists only 2 cards). The inclusion in the ban list creates an aura of uniqueness - the game component is considered too powerful compared to the rest of the game (for example see this discussion).
Solamith from DDM. Artwork by Silvenger.

Restat/revision is a partial change of a game component which ensures its further playability. This practice is not common becuase it requires the publisher to reprint the game component or the player to create the new version using her own resources. DDM Guild (which is now in charge of D&D Minis skirmish game) uses restats regularly - players are able to just change the stat cards and keep the actual miniatures. Restats change the fiction (in a way similar to new editions), but they keep it coherent. The relations between parts of fiction can shift and alter according to restats, but they don't cease to exist.

Rebalancing Video Games

Players perceive videogame rules in a different fashion than the board, card or miniature game ones. I won't be trying to describe the difference in its entirety but I will rather explain it on examples which are connected to the main theme of this article.

Dungeon Lords

When I played Dungeon Lords right after the launch of the game in 2005, it could be described as somewhat broken and in dire need of errata or patches. There were many mechanics that were visually present in the game but were not working because of a glitch/bug or were intentionally disabled by producers because they weren't prepared for the launch date. A lot of other things that were supposed to be in the game, were missing completely. The very first version had unworking system of weapon degradation, broken system of multi-classing in which you could ignore all the requirements for new classes. Dungeon Lords were also lacking an ingame mini-map while some of the quests really depended on finding an exact location in a big fictional world of the game. Majority of these problems have been fixed later and I want to argue that these patches were in fact rebalancing the game, changing its rules and in a way also changing the fictional world of the game. In my personal experience the first version of Dungeon Lords had unbreakable weapons, so it was more important for me to navigate through the world (without a mini-map, using only printed maps) than to manage my equipment. My characters were more skilled early in the game, but they could never join the thieves guild because it was bugged. When I tried to play the game after all the patches were completed I no longer recognized the game. The difficulty, rules and the fictional world changed by applying these, in their original purpose bug-fixing, patches.

Dragon Age II
 
Isabela and Arishok by maruhana-bachi.
More recent example can be found in post-launch treatment of Dragon Age II (2011). The game has been significantly rebalanced with the patch 1.03. This patch fixed some of the bugs, but introduced changes to all the classes and to many of their abilities. Community on BioWare Social Network (BSN) immediately started to discuss the changes. Their reaction was mostly considering the meta-gaming aspects of patch 1.03. One of the forum threads begins with this methapor: "Patch 1.03 dealt a death blow to Dragon Age 2 culture!" The author panchamkauns brings forth an argument that all the guides made by community are now obsolete and that this big change into game's rules is destroying the society that had been built around it. Poster mr_afk argues that changes so big, and in his view changes which nobody asked for, should be introduced only soon after the launch. Generally posters praise the patch for the bug-fixing, but are dissapointed or surprised by rebalancing. Poster ipgd claims, by using the example of MMOs, that it is nothing unusual to implement patches like this. Others (like fieryeel or erynnar) see the patch as a reason to replay the game once more.

The majority of posters is concerned about meta-gaming aspects, but IanPolaris in a different thread introduced the topic of change of the fictional world. In his opinion the "nerf" of the combination of spirit healer and blood mage sub-classes effectively erased this part of the fictional world (in his words: "the lore"). The changed perception of fiction can also be identified in many meta-gaming comments. Factors like relative power of classes, abilities, equipment, party members, the subjective feeling of the length of combat change the way players think about the game and the fictional world.

While reactions to changes in a game balance vary from quite positive to extremely negative, the patch has been in many cases (at least on BSN) an incentive to try to achieve all the meta-gaming (like speed-runs) again. Poster AreleX was initially very angry with the changes, but later she changed her mind. AreleX and other find satisfaction and enjoyment in finding new exploits, e.g. under patch 1.03 AreleX was able to improve her time in many speed-run battles.

The medium of patch notes plays a significant role in discussion of patch 1.03. As the discussion progressed, Peter Thomas (lead gameplay designer for Dragon Age II) explained that the patch notes are incomplete and missing a major change of one of the abilities of the spirit healer. Poster rumination888 writes: "Spirit Healer became kind of pointless for anything but roleplay reasons(the spec was already bordering on underpowered pre-1.03)." And IanPolaris continues with: "Does Bioware hate Spirit healers or simply not want anyone to play one? Echoing Rumination's thoughts from above. That added unpublished nerf to healing Aura seems to be unwanted, unnecessary, and frankly IMO over the top." According to these players the sub-class of spirit healer is now unplayable which means that it is losing its former position in the fictional world.

There is a lot of other interesting topics in threads about patch 1.03, but I think that examples listed above are enough for us to imagine how changes in the rules affect the fiction and the whole (video)gaming experience.

Conclusion

Even small changes in rules can change the whole gaming experience. The way we imagine the fictional world of (video)game is greatly influenced by rules. Errata, bans and restrictions, bug-fixing and game rebalancing are just examples of these changes. The experience before and after implementing such changes can sometimes differ so much that you feel like you are playing a completely new game. Players aren't blind to these changes and they express their concern. Some of them think that such changes should be made only soon after the launch but the medium of videogame and services like Xbox Live or PSN prolong the time it takes to repair and implement such fixes. Traditional games are even in worse position to implement fixes as the distribution of revised game components is expensive and takes a long time when shipped to all players around the world. Developers should bear in mind that even innocent changes can have a big influence on player's experience. Adopters of previous versions may refuse to play the new ones or on the contrary see the change as an incentive to delve in the game again. Players react to changes in many contrasting ways and it is always important how the developer presents and explains the changes.

Sources

BioWare (2011): Dragon Age II Patches. BioWare Social Network. retrieved online 2012-02-21 http://social.bioware.com/page/da2-patches

Juul, Jesper (2005): Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. MIT Press.

Comments from following threads are used in this article:

AreleX (2011): Patch 1.02/1.03 Gameplay Changes Discussion Thread. BioWare Social Network. retrieved online 2012-02-21 http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/308/index/7497788/1

Panchamkauns (2011): How patch 1.03 dealt a death blow to Dragon Age II Culture. BioWare Social Network. retrieved online 2012-02-21 http://social.bioware.com/mechronicles.com/forums/forum/1/topic/315/index/7604024/1

Images

Kari Christensen (2005): Mister Bananas. deviantART. retrieved online 2012-02-21 http://karichristensen.deviantart.com/gallery/?offset=24#/dbxxnq


maruhana-bachi (2011): Isabela. deviantART. retrieved online 2012-02-21 http://maruhana-bachi.deviantart.com/art/Isabela-204575554?q=boost%3Apopular%20dragon%20age%20isabela&qo=0

Silvenger (2011): The Solamith. deviantART. retrieved online 2012-02-21 http://silvenger.deviantart.com/#/d4gqr0e

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