Vague Patch Notes: On play conditioning and the lecture of experience in MMOs

We're here! We're... that's it, actually.

Yes, it’s another week in which we talk about abstract concepts that underpin the way we play video games, this time inspired by a term that’s among my favorite things despite only discovering it recently. The term in question is “play conditioning,” and it’s something H.Bomberguy uses in a bunch of his videos… and since he’s now in the news due to, you know, raising a huge amount of money with a star-studded charity stream, why not give him a bit more exposure?

Plus, you know, I’m always happy to turn my critical theory YouTube binges into something productive, so here we are.

Play conditioning is an interesting idea because it’s at once more obvious and less obvious than things like tutorials and direct guidance. The simple version is that it’s the way that a game teaches you how to play it in the early stages, but that makes it sound like… well, tutorials again. But really, it’s much more subtle and far-reaching than that, and something best understood by example, starting with an example of play conditioning courtesy of Final Fantasy XI.

When you first start that game, classically, you get a brief cutscene giving you the vaguest idea of what’s going on in your starting city before getting handed a certificate and being told to trade it to a guard. And… then that’s it. You’re given no further explanation or any sort of waymarks whatsoever; you’re supposed to listen to the directions given in the cutscene and hopefully take that as sufficient orientation.

This is not, in and of itself, a tutorial. Showing you how to trade the certificate you got to a specific NPC is a tutorial. But this whole microcosm is telling you what to expect from the game in the form of a very basic challenge. More than learning the commands, this is the game telling you that you can expect minimal direction from the start and will probably be rather confused without thorough interrogation and careful attention.

In short, it’s play conditioning. It’s not teaching you the mechanics; through direct experience it’s giving you an idea of what happens in the game on the regular. And while you could easily point to parts of this as bad design, you can’t call it bad conditioning. It is actually what you’re likely to experience over time.

As a rule, play conditioning itself isn’t concerned with what’s good or bad┬ábut what is. A game like EverQuest, for example, had excellent play conditioning for its endgame. Traditionally, you couldn’t really go it alone for most of the game past the very earliest areas, and so you got used to doing everything in a group and generally getting more friends together over time. Playing in a group was mandatory to really, well, play the game.

No galaxy brain here.

By contrast, World of Warcraft does an awful job of play conditioning because it doesn’t have that. While its endgame is still very much on a regimented “form a static group and work together at all times” setup, the actual experience of leveling doesn’t require you to ever both. You can, in fact, level from 1 to 120 without ever going into a single dungeon, such that you’ll find the actual experience waiting for you at the level cap exceedingly jarring.

Does that make one game better than the other? No, but one game is better than the other about telling you how the game is actually going to be played. When done effectively, play conditioning gives you an idea of what to actually expect and whether or not certain strategies are worth pursuing.

Sometimes, play conditioning can actually look like a problem. A lot of people complain, for example, that Final Fantasy XIV stops itself dead at level 15 to force you into a dungeon that has only the most tenuous connection to the plot that’s been established up to now. But it’s actually a good thing the game does that because it teaches you that yes, sometimes you will need to get into dungeons in order to progress with the game. This isn’t an optional side activity; it’s a major part of the game, all the way through the path of the game.

The idea is that good play conditioning doesn’t replace tutorials but that when done properly it teaches you something crucial about the game that’s more difficult to express through a tutorial. Here’s an example: A tutorial window could pop up in Star Wars: The Old Republic making it clear that sometimes Light or Dark choices will result in your bypassing fights. However, on the Republic side the game’s introductory flashpoint teaches you that by giving you an early Dark choice that, yes, allows you to just avoid fighting altogether. It involves killing a lot of people for no good reason, but you learn that the option exists.

Unfortunately, that option also teaches you that there are a lot of times when the choice doesn’t really matter because what you’re really getting are the alignment points and nothing else, since the majority of the choices in the flashpoint don’t really change anything. It’s just a question of being nice or mean, and so you learn not to expect any major deviation aside from which choice makes you feel better.

Oh, I get it.

Play conditioning is also part of why I enjoyed the heck out of Project Gorgon right from the start: The game conditions you from the very beginning to just try things and not expect too much in the way of guidance. There are puzzles to be sorted out, but there’s a persistent emphasis on the idea that the game has lots of different skills to unlock with sometimes unusual benefits. Thus, when you die and it improves your dying skill, you’re probably not surprised, and you’re probably not even all that upset because the game has taught you to expect more novelty of experience than anything else.

So, where does all of this leave us? With an improved ability to recognize things, mostly. None of this will enable you to exactly break games wide open, but it will make you more attentive when a game is subtly telling you that you should expect something to happen or one mechanic or another will become important throughout the game. It’s an expansion of terminology and understanding.

If anything, it gives you reason to appreciate games more when they make an effort to really educate you on what you’re doing through means more elaborate than tutorials. Sure, I could write out a guide to combat in FFXIV when it comes to dungeons; dodge the thing, pay attention to patterns, kill the adds, and so forth. It’s not super complicated. But I don’t actually have to because the game introduces you to all of these things; the very first dungeon teaches you about dodging AoEs, dealing with multiple boss targets, dealing with adds, and using environmental cues in boss fights. By the time you’ve finished the first three dungeons, you have the foundations in place to figure out every subsequent dungeon.

And all of that comes with the game never once having told you what the mechanics are going to be; you just learned by doing.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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