The negative impact of complexity on MMOs and virtual worlds

James Egan
J. Egan|12.01.08

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The negative impact of complexity on MMOs and virtual worlds

The relative complexity of MMOs in comparison with more standard PC and console titles is a major draw for many of us. We like the crafting systems, the economic underpinnings, and many of the other trappings of massively multiplayer online titles. Complexity can be a core strength of a solid MMO title, but at what point does it become a detriment? Sometimes, emergent complexity changes the environment and the rules which govern it in some negative ways. Likewise, too much complexity-by-design can be equally problematic. This is the focus of a recent discussion at Terra Nova -- "Irreparable Complexity, Game and World" -- kicked off by Timothy Burke.

Burke writes, "I've found that virtual worlds, massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) have provided some great examples of Rube-Goldberg complexity-by-design, and have also demonstrated why this phenomenon can be a source of so much trouble, that you can end up with systems which are painfully indispensable and permanently dysfunctional, beyond the ability of any agent or interest to repair."

Burke explores this complexity in depth, through analysis of Star Wars: Galaxies and Warhammer Online, but also how this plays out in virtual worlds. This leads him to the dilemma of developers wanting to keep their game design opaque enough to players so that systems aren't easily exploited, at the risk of becoming ensnared in broken systems and overly complicated game mechanics -- where even the developers themselves can't figure it all out. Have a look at Timothy Burke's "Irreparable Complexity, Game and World" over at Terra Nova for his views on how game designers should handle both emergent complexity and complexity-by-design.
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