Does the Internet Limit Creativity in Games?

17 May 2011

Over the six or so years (six? really?!) that I played World of Warcraft off and on, the game’s community changed immensely.  Fansites evolved and players got smarter and smarter about how they played the game.  Players, as well as the dev team, found themselves facing and re-facing the problem of “cookie-cutter builds”.  These didn’t exist back when I played in Vanilla WOW, but were de facto standard when I started up again during the Lich King expansion.

Cookie-cutter builds are talent specs posted on fan sites or forums that are (allegedly) mathematically optimal.  This min-maxing of damage led to players not only using cookie-cutter builds, but also to routine bullying of players who chose their own suboptimal talent specs.

World of Warcraft isn’t the only game that has changed dramatically as the internet connected game communities and magnified their collective knowledge.  Once upon a time I used to play Magic: The Gathering.  I should have known that when they pulled the “first one’s free” trick on my friends and I at PAX that I would be hooked again.  Compared to those early-internet days when I played MTG and occasionally bought a copy of Scrye, the game is barely recognizable.  Sure, the cards all look pretty familiar, but the way the game is played bears no similarity to us kids trading cool cards at sleepovers.

What surprised me is how incredibly knowledgable the community has become.  Headed by pro tournament grinders, each new set of cards is boiled down to the best cards and decks almost before the set is launched.  “Netdecking” is a playstyle that exactly mirrors WOW’s cookie-cutter builds.  To netdeck, you get online and copy a popular tournament-winning deck verbatim and play with it.  At the moment unless you’re playing the winning $500+ Caw Blade deck, you may may as well not waste time playing.

What happened to the creative games I loved that let me put together any crazy combo I could think up?  Is it becoming impossible for designers to create games that aren’t quickly whittled down to a small hard fraction of the big fun game they created?  Has the internet completely destroyed our creativity?

I think it would be more accurate to say the internet gives us the option to skip out on creativity.  In MTG they have a few names for common player profiles.  I’m a Johnny — my goal is to flex my creative muscles with elaborate decks that I can show off and call my own.  Not everyone is a Johnny, though!  Another stereotype is Spike – the guys who want to hone their skills and win, and could care less what deck they use.  The last stereotype is the one we all start out a new game as: Timmy: a noob who sees big numbers or cool abilities and just wants to take them for a ride and blow stuff up.  You saw these same stereotypes in WOW too, and presumably they exist for every game that allows for both creativity and competition.

Overall, I think this increase in community knowledge is good for games.  It doesn’t destroy creativity, it funnels it to where it matters most.  Players can skip out on the boring work of repetitive playtesting (or worse, calculus!) to get started.  Instead, we can skip straight to the heart of what makes the game fun for each of us.  Spike can hit the web, copy a build, and go to town.  Johnny can read articles full of crazy ideas and write articles showing off his own.  Even Timmys now benefit from player ratings that ensure they play other Timmys instead of getting shredded by a pro-playing Spike.  Even designers get more feedback than ever on what is working and what isn’t in their game.  The internet pushes games to a fun, stable state faster than ever before.  I’d say that’s a win.

Update: It turns out Caw Blade’s heroes got banned, and the standard metagame has exploded to a half dozen or more decks!  Looks like Johnnys will rule the MTG tournament scene…for a little while, anyway.