Hey everybody! For the last several months, I have been writing an ongoing series that examines the relationship between game design principles and real-world applications. In the past I have looked at how real world situations can be examined from a game theory perspective with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, examined what happens when companies try to haphazardly apply game design principles to their products with Gamification, and looked at some game design lessons that can be learned from one of the great pinnacles of design – Disney World.
Today, however, I am going to be doing something a little different by examining the “game mechanics” of the greatest game of all – Life. Life is a wonderful game (I play it pretty much every day), and is very widely imitated in the game
design community. In fact, for many games the entire point is just to mimic some small aspect of life as closely as possible.
Life has some incredible features. It has a huge, beautiful open world map, an incredibly large server capacity, and graphics that are second to none. When it comes to gameplay, this game has something for everybody. It has racing, sports, role-playing elements, romance, you name it!
However, while many parts of Life are great, it also has some … less than ideal mechanics. Today, I am going to be taking a critical look at the game mechanics of Life, and examining some of it’s worst design decisions.
Let’s start at the very beginning – the character creation screen. The classic mechanic where players get to determine their character’s appearance and beginning stats. While not every game needs a character creation screen, it is a staple in the open-world RPG
genre. Fortunately, life does not disappoint, with the most powerful, in-depth character customization software found in any game.
Unfortunately, players do not have any control over their character creation. It is entirely random! This system controls all aspects of a player’s appearance, from their height to their skin tone and even their physical sex, with absolutely no player input. While a patch was added recently that would allow players to change some of these attributes later in the game, this option is too expensive for most players, and a number of bugs are still being worked out.
Not only does this system control the character’s appearance,, but it also determines a number of other factors including base stat distribution. While the exact extent is unclear, it is known that base stats chosen by the character randomizer play a significant role in determining how quickly a player is able to level up different skills. While it is possible to max out a skill even with a poor base-stat, it requires a lot of grinding for exp.
Initial Spawn Point
One other aspect of the game that is determined randomly is where a player starts the game. Players can start their game at pretty much any point on the world map (and there are rumors about future expansions that add additional maps), but have absolutely no
input on where they will end up.
While some games such as Minecraft do have random starting points, this starting point tends to have very little effect on the outcome of the game. Not so with Life. In Life, where you start the game can have a massive effect on how the game unfolds. Other players and even NPCs behave differently towards players based on a combination of spawn point and character build, and both of these aspects cannot be changed once they are set.
Where players start the game can determine a number of features such as the character’s parents, culture, and economic conditions. While some players are able to overcome very unfortunate starting conditions, or can fail even with a very strong initial position, for most these initial conditions largely determine how the game will play out.
Life is … complicated. In fact, it takes most players years just to master the basic controls! Players have so many different options when it comes to career choice and hobbies, and each of these options comes with it’s own unique set of game mechanics. Any single option can take years to master, and switching between options is not always a simple process. For this reason, many moderators have added a tutorial mode to their servers that would help players get a basic understanding of the game before they start the campaign mode.
Unfortunately, this tutorial has a number of issues. For one thing, not everybody gets equal access to it. While some players have nearly unlimited access to the best tutorial programs, as well as the advanced tutorials, other players get little to no training before being thrown straight into the campaign. The moderators are aware of this issue, and are working to make sure that more and more players have access to decent tutorials, but it still isn’t perfect.
In addition, the tutorial mode is lllooonnnggg. Life is a massive victim of feature-creep, with patches and updates being released constantly with brand new content, and this new content means that the tutorial mode has steadily been getting longer and longer.
Now it is not uncommon for players to spend a full twelve years or more in this mode before even beginning the main storyline. While this may be necessary due to the unique nature of the game, this extended tutorial mode is not something that I would recommend for developers to mimic.
Lack of Clear Rules and Win Conditions
Life has so many things to do, but the ultimate goal of the game is very unclear. Players have been trying to determine the win condition for centuries, and while some claim to have figured it out there is still no clear consensus. Some players believe that their is no such thing as a win condition, while others argue that the whole point is simply to keep playing for as long as you can. Still, with a game as large as this I believe that giving players a bit more direction can only help.
In addition, the game has pretty much no rules aside from those determined by the physics engine itself. While different servers do have different rules in place, these rules are determined by the moderators, not the Devs, and they vary significantly from server to server.
Throughout the game’s history there have been a number of players who claim to have
uncovered the Dev’s official rulebook, and some of these rulebooks have become very widely distributed. Unfortunately, many of these rulebooks conflict with one another, and it has so far proven impossible to conclusively determine which (if any) are the authentic Developer’s rules.
One of the most controversial mechanics in the game is the player-versus-player combat mechanics. Basically, in Life, any player is allowed to engage with any other player at any time, as long as they are in proximity to eachother. While not all players agree on how this system should be adjusted, most agree that this mechanic should be restricted in some ways.
In most servers, moderators have put unofficial rules in place to try and reduce the amount of PVP combat that takes place. In most cases, players who initiate combat with another player end up getting banned, either temporarily or permanently depending on the extent of the combat. However, many players believe that this is not enough, and want the mechanic modified or removed.
Unfortunately, the players are not all in agreement about how this PVP system should work. Some players argue that the mechanic should be removed from the game entirely, while others believe that it should only be allowed in certain cases when there are conflicts between moderators of different servers. Others believe that the system should be restricted so that certain areas, such as spawn points and tutorial zones, are designated as non-PVP areas. However, I believe it is unlikely that the Devs are going to make any changes to this system in the near future.
Limited Play and Perma-Death
The final, and biggest mechanic that we will be looking at today is the limited play system. Basically, the game is so popular that the Devs have instituted a strict play-limit
so that players do not spend too much time in the game. The current record for longest time in-game is around 122 years, and many players don’t make it nearly that long. While this is an impressive run, I am sure that many players would choose to continue playing long past this point if given the option.
While nobody is entirely sure how the time-limit is implemented, many players believe that there is a hidden “health” stat, which slowly goes to zero the longer you play, in a process known as “aging”. While there is no known way to stop or reverse this process, the modding and data-mining communities are currently hard at work creating a patch that will allow players to exceed this maximum play-limit, while retaining a decent health stat.
Why is limited play time such an issue? The main problem with this system is that the game only allows one life per account. Once your character dies, you are through – you cannot play again. While some of the alleged Developer Rulebooks claim that players will be assigned a new character when their old one dies, this is currently unsubstantiated. Others claim the existence of exclusive post-game content if certain achievements are unlocked during the play-through, although the exact details vary.
This is one mechanic that I would strongly advise developers not to copy. While perma-death has it’s role in some kinds of games, these games tend to allow players to start over with a new character if they die. It may be possible to create an interesting game that only allows a single life per account, but I just don’t think that a Open-world sandbox RPG is the right fit for this type of mechanic.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week! I hope you enjoyed this article about some of life’s more questionable game mechanics! If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be looking at the life and career of one of my all-time favorite game designers!