August 20th, 2006

Auto Assault

There goes the (online) neighborhood.

There's a specific kind of player that's a persistent plague upon massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game worlds: the ones who'll do anything to get an edge up over other players. Even when they can be coerced by aggressive enforcement of Terms of Service into keeping the trash talk and other verbal intimidation to a minimum, they're basically cowards and bullies for whom no game with any player versus player (PvP) combat in it can possibly be any fun unless they can beat up whoever they want and nobody has any chance of beating them up. We call them "twinks." Most of the twinks would be pretty helpless, though, if it weren't for the leading edge of their phalanx. Within the community of twinks, there's a tiny handful of players, usually no more than half a dozen per game world, who have an even greater obsession with being the first to be unfairly over-powered. These "min/maxers" devise scientific experiments, some of which take dozens or hundreds of hours, to find every detail of how the software calculates combat results, and to test the actual (as opposed to advertised) efficacy of every piece of equipment, every possibly expenditure of character attribute and skill points, and (more importantly) every possible combination. And since they have (inexplicably) more time to spend on their experiments than the authors of the games have when they try to design systems that aren't vulnerable to this, they usually find one. Well, no, they usually find more than one, but their calculations always turn up one particular combination of character class, character design, and equipment selection that offers the maximum possible deadliness at the least possible risk.

How much trouble can a half dozen min/maxers be? By themselves, very little. Unlike the twinks, who live to beat other people up on the playground, for your average min/maxer the game is "won" once they find that combination and demonstrate it. At that point, they begin to lose interest, and most go on to break other games. The problem is that they act as bellwethers to the twinks. The twinks watch the min/maxers like hawks. Once the twinks figure out that the min/maxers have found something, they obsessively study what the min/maxers are doing so that they can copy it. They then spread that knowledge among the hidden twink bulletin boards on the Internet, so that the twinks and their selected few buddies can always win these games at no risk to themselves. And that's when it starts to become a problem, because suddenly it seems like everybody and his dog is playing one particular character design. This adds overwhelming numerical superiority to what was already some level of combat superiority, and the win/loss ratio for everybody else goes ridiculous. Eventually, the non-twinks figure out what it is that the twinks and the min/maxers are doing and how (from having it shoved in their faces all day), and report this to the people running the games. They take a couple of weeks to figure out how to fix it, and do so. And it's a mark of how important it is to the twinks that they be the only ones that can possibly win that their term for being brought down in power to where everybody else is, so that they have to use the same level of skill that anybody else does to win, is to "nerf" them -- because to them, if there's any chance they might lose a fight then it feels as if they might as well be fighting with Nerf weapons. Losing even once makes them feel as if their character class, skill set, and equipment are useless floppy bits of foam rubber.

About halfway through my 14-day free trial of Auto Assault, I figured out that this game would be less vulnerable to that pathology than most of them are. I'll tell you why. It's because in this game, it doesn't cost you anything to lose. The guy who beats you can't steal your equipment, or even destroy it. Your total penalty is that you're out of this battle for the roughly 2 to 5 minutes it'll take for you to be airlifted back to a repair pad, for your vehicle repaired, and for you to drive back to the battle site. For a very large number of the worst of the twinks, not only is it only fun if they always win, it's also only fun if their victims suffer. So, thank Prime, twinks flee this game in droves as soon as they wrap their heads around the idea that most of their victims don't actually mind an enforced couple of minute break in the fighting now and then, as long as they get a fun fight out of it. On their way out the door, they complain bitterly and warn the game's operators that they'll soon go out of business, because "nobody" would want to play a game where they can't be a bully beating people up on the playground for their lunch money. As I just said to one of them this afternoon, my response is, "Don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you."

But now for the second time in my years of MMPORG experience, I'm having a distinct "there goes the neighborhood" feeling. You see, Auto Assault's much-hyped Update 1, about a month ago, nerfed the min/maxers' most powerful combination. It took the min/maxers about a week to find the new most-powerful combination -- actually, to find two of them, neither as powerful as the original but still perceptibly better than what anybody else can do. It took the twinks about three weeks of around-the-clock leveling up to copy the min/maxers ... only to already have one of those combinations nerfed in a patch a week ago Friday, and to find out that the other is being nerfed in Update 2 which will be out in a couple of weeks. So what's my personal problem? The min/maxers have recognizably started running experiments on my side of the game world. Their preliminary conclusion seems to be that the next remaining "most-powerful" combination will involve some combination of "mutant"-side skills and equipment. Knowing the history, this leads me to worry that some time soon, probably in about two months, we'll have a month or two where every twink in the game wants to play on my team. It's a conundrum.

Oh, I'll live, and I'll still have fun. I did this before, in Anarchy Online, when Fixers went from being the weakest character class in the game to the strongest in a single patch. Those of us who'd been playing Fixers because it was fun whether we were "uber" or not knew who each other were. But, well, dang it -- I was green before green was cool.
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