Obeying Outer Meanings

I am reading Douglas Hofstadter, and I am to his chapter “The Location of Meaning.” He argues that messages have three levels of meaning: frame, outer, and inner. The frame meaning is “this is a message”: you must recognize that there is something to decode here. The outer meaning is how to decode the message, to get from marks on a page to what the writer was trying to express. The inner meaning is what the writer was trying to express. To read a message in Japanese, you must (1) realize that it is writing, not a bunch of little pictures; (2) realize that it is Japanese (and be able to translate it); and (3) read it.

There are many puzzles yet to be solved because the fact that they are puzzles is not explicit. Games Magazine hides a puzzle in each issue, perhaps in the page layout or the structure of another puzzle. At least they tell you that there is a game afoot, if only you can find it. The titular Da Vinci Code is hidden in plain sight because nothing says, “This is a code!”

So I wonder about something like notpron. Finding the outer meaning is the point. The frame message is nested: the explicit frame is that each page is a puzzle to be solved, and then you must find the part of the page that is a puzzle. Then you have some little bit of puzzle, and you must figure out how to solve it. The inner meaning is just the way to the next puzzle.

You are explicitly forbidden to Google for spoilers, which seems like the obvious way to solve it. It defeats the whole point of notpron, but then part of the point is to learn to use Google. The most efficient way to get the inner meaning removes all meaning. You might as well skip to the last page, or just not do it at all. (Or to heck with that, you will notpron as you wish?) Most puzzle games feel this way, that using efficient outside techniques takes away the point of it all. It would be like declaring victory because you reached across the chessboard to knock over your opponent’s king.

In any game, cheating does that. Even knowing that there are cheat codes can make games less fun for me, because I feel like a sap working for x, y, and z when they are available in a few keystrokes.

It pierces the veil. Civilization is not fun because you have an empire or control the world; it is fun because you build an empire or conquer the world. The goal is to win, but hitting the “I win” button makes it rather hollow. The goal is to win, but the point is to play.

How far are you willing to take that? Do you refuse twinking, easy xp, and other ways of skipping parts of your MMO? Is it more fun to be powerful or to become powerful? Does it matter if this is your first character, or first character of that class?

I feel free to skip parts of games that are not fun. Bugs and lousy design are everywhere, and some of them hide fun things just behind them. If your “puzzle” comes down to learning a sequence through trial and error, to heck with that, we’ll see if the next puzzle is better. Is this one of those adventure games that kills you for entering the monster’s chamber without a flowerpot on your head? Just look that randomness up.

Would you feel bad about violating The Vision of your MMO by experiencing its content in an unintended fashion? You pass equipment or gold to your lower level characters, or buy it from farmers. You have friends help you level, and is that okay just because you don’t really like level x or really want power y? If you have a trick that gets you through an instance half an hour faster, is that a pro’s skill or a cheater’s exploit? What out-of-game information collection can you do before you are cheating yourself?

Note to developers: RMT is probably a problem with your game rather than the farmers. If people are paying not to play your game, they may soon not be paying to play your game.

: Zubon

8 thoughts on “Obeying Outer Meanings”

  1. I do all of the above, depending on my objective. Games are supposed to be fun; ‘The Vision’ is exactly one way to play, and tends to involve a careful calculation of how much time per morsel of content can be extorted from players without a significant loss of subscription.

    When I hit mid-level ranges in games that no longer have a sizable poplation outside the end-game, I get high-level friends to help me with unsoloable quests (but not before I spend up to an hour determining whether or not it’s soloable with the right tactics). If I’m just getting early level attunements for the hell of it, I’ll take any shortcut I can get. When I decided I wanted the MC attunement on my 70 druid, I hopped into the lava and outhealed it on my way to the clickable.

    When I want to play with fluff systems like housing, I engage in RMT rather than level-capping a character in a game I could, for the most part, do better without just to be capable of affording such luxuries. Shortly thereafter I usually lose interest and unsubscribe.

    When I’m playing a hard-to-level class like a dedicated tank or healer, I will do absolutely anything possible to lighten the load.

    When quest directions don’t tell me exactly what I need to do, or where I can find that out, I look it up. If I’m not getting the expected result for a quest, I look it up. Infrequently, but too often, there are long-forgotten glitches (read: just about anything not fixed in a few months after the content is launched) which I wouldn’t otherwise know about.

    I understand why developers draw everything out. If I could level my villains in short order, I’d only subscribe for a few months at a time. I know this because I’ve never held my CoX subscription for longer than it took me to hit the mid-to-late 30’s. I get to play with the big powers and then I get bored of the near complete lack of engaging content and decide to that fifteen hour of one, universally apt strategy is enough.

    So… I’m not wholly convinced anymore that number of subscribers is necessarily a remotely good indicator of a good game. I think developers and publishers who have some good multiplayer content that won’t last hundreds of hours should consider embracing short-term MMO’s. I can’t really find an ideal short phrase to describe it, but I have this romantic idea of MMO-style setting and play that is designed to be exhausted within less than 200 hours, but is an absolute blast for that time. That’s the kind of game that can justify a full-scale box price before a subscription, and that’s the kind of game I’m convince more of my friends to play. It would a pretty brilliant way of drawing subscribers away from other games, if only for a few months at a time.[/tangent]

  2. I think saying that “Note to developers: RMT is probably a problem with your game rather than the farmers” is way to simplistic.

    Personally I feel no matter what nice things you do, there will be people who will try to shortcut them.

    For example, suppose you’d like to control endless inflation a bit (endless inflation is caused by huge amount of money dropped by mobs and comparatively tiny amounts of money being taken out via repairs and such). So you could add something like an ability to spend N amount of money to get like +1 damage to your weapon. That ought to be a good thing — some use for all those [otherwise useless] money people are accumulating. But I bet there will be people who will RMT the required money and complain about in-game money sinks — no matter how cosmetic in the grand scheme of things that +1 damage is.

  3. Cheat codes, RMT, powerleveling, twinking… all those things… are prevalent because people have turned them INTO new outer meanings. They’re so common that they’re seen as part of the context of the game.

    “I got my first character to 50 in 3 weeks. How much faster can I do it farming?” then “Ok, how fast can we do it with full guild powerleveling support?”

    They’re defining the game with their own rules, defining their own winning conditions just as much as the person that says “I’m going to take this character up to 50 solo- no twinking, no powerleveling, no RMT. The difference is that ONE of these strategies more closely matched what the developers prepared for.

  4. A variant on that is imposing strictures on yourself that are harsher than the game strictly requires or are conventional. I’ve heard of people trying “undying” characters in Warcraft, or seeing how far you can level simply from exploration XP, or without killing anything. Nethack seems to encourage this sort of thing; I think “achievements” in other games might moove it along.

    One possible subtle anti-RMT measure is an “achievement” for characters of “Untwinked” or “has never received any cash” or similar, that was visible to other players.

  5. Most MMOs have so many games built in them that people will pick the game they want, and are willing to pay to skip the games they don’t want to play. It does not necessarily mean those other parts of the game are not fun. For instance, some people argue you should be able to create lvl 70 characters in WoW so you can skip right to raiding or arenas. But other people enjoy the 1-70 game, and don’t like the game at 70.

    Of course, the existence of RMT COULD mean that certain parts of the game are indeed fun for nobody at all. I was blown away when I read a post by a LOTRO developer who actually admitted that one of the requirements for high level characters to get their final powers was to “make it grindy”. I guess I should not be surprised, but I actually thought when people said games were deliberately made grindy to keep you around they were just being bitter, but then someone who works for a game went and said “oh no that was one of the requirements”.

    You know I think Jezebeau has a good point. The pricing model drives companies to make games that way. I wonder if Guild Wars has a better model. I haven’t played it so I don’t know but it would seem a game without subscription fees, where you buy expansions each year, would mean there’s no encouragement to create grinds to keep people online. Instead the incentive is to create content that will attract people to buy the next expansion.

    Though I agree on cheating or skipping, once I entered a cheat code even once, I couldn’t finish the game. I felt like I was wasting time doing it the hard way and it wasn’t fun. So I stay away from buying gold for MMOs for the same reason. I know it will ruin it for me, even though some parts are not fun. (but there’s always parts of a game that are not fun which is why I would use the cheat code).

  6. In playing around with notpron and trying to do legitimate searches on the topics of the puzzles, I had to weed through quite a few sites where people were clearly asking for or posting cheats. Does take the fun out of it.

    Notpron reminds me a bit of The Stone, which used to occupy lots of my free time. I was playing around there before Google was the premier search engine, so I remember keeping 3-4 different search engines open, hoping one of them would give me the right clue to proceed with the puzzle. I remember getting so frustrated with a couple of the puzzles that I just wanted them done so I could move on to others, and it was nearly impossible to find the answers posted anywhere. I’ll bet they’re much easier to find now.

    Everyone seems to have different opinions about what is cheating. Tabbing out to find maps, using add-ons, passing gear from character to character… We define what is acceptable and what is cheating by what we’re looking for in the game, I suppose, and what parts of it we find satisfying. I do like exploring, but I don’t want to spend an hour of my limited playtime wandering around the entire zone to find the little man with the wagon who needs my help, so I do go looking for more clues. I also share wealth and equipment between my different characters. I’m building up a family of them with different professions and so forth, just like a small guild, really. To me, that’s not cheating because it’s how I like to play, but I suppose some could interpret it otherwise.

    Interesting to think about…

  7. I recall playing Warcraft II through the heavy use of cheat codes. I was a bit obsessed with codes at the time, through the borrowed enthusiasm of my brother, but eventually found that they destroyed the fun for me. I didn’t finish the game until years later, when I’d forgotten what the codes were and could find the challenge where it was. That’s what I took away from the experience: even if I do know the cheaty way, I still look for the fun way, and can usually keep to it with a little willpower.

  8. My judgement criteria is simple…if there’s something that has become a stumbling block (and has been for a while, to the point where I need to get it done to advance in the manner I want) for me, I’ll look up reference material on how to get past it.

    There’s not much difference (to me, anyway) between using Thott to find out how to finish a quest, and looking on your class forum for the best expertise setup for your style of playing. In both cases, someone had to figure it out from trial and error. I just have a bit too much going on to spend a ton of “trial and error” time these days, I’m afraid.

Comments are closed.