The problem of numerical feedback.

Numerical feedback is one of the ways a game gives information to a player on his success or failure in a specific situation. It’s also one of the most immersion killing, gamebreaking, mechanical aspects of the current MMORPG. There are two types, one of which is benign and one of which is not.

The benign mode is internal feedback. These are numeric indicators which are used to act as a means of conveying information to the player about his status in a game. Health numbers show how close we are to dying, EXP to becoming stronger, stamina to our tiredness. Not all sources of internal feedback are numerical: something like peripheral vision or spatial awareness can be substituted by a radar screen or an arrow in the HUD. However the concept is the same. The numerical aspect though will be focused on and the reasons why will follow.

This is required because in games we lack body awareness in any form at all beyond sight and hearing. When we are hurt and tired in real life we feel it. When we are weighed down our muscles complain. These things don’t exist in the game, so we need to show them abstractly through numbers. It’s not just the need to have numerics define combat, but the player has to have them to know their capabilities.

The malign one is external feedback. This is being able to “con” a target, and while fighting him know his damage taken, closeness to death, status effects on him and their wearing off, and other related info. This is used because it is hard to show visually the effects of fighting on a npc model, as well as npcs often having hundreds of thousands of hitpoints due to player strength. It also gives precise feedback on how a players actions are working, so they can adjust.

While internal feedback has problems of it’s own, I think external numeric feedback contributes to the harmful mechanical aspects of a game. It reduces combat to abstract number pushing. Juggle numbers in the column of tanking to offset the incoming numbers of mob dps, while your other members maximize their numerical output. You can even parse and apply ratings to the act of doing so. WWAP? What Would Aragorn Parse?

The numbers are needed in a gameplay sense. I am not denying that at all. It’s in their direct application to feedback which is harmful. To increase immersiveness, external feedback must be limited drastically in quantifiable terms. An enemy should never show to us players that it is 95% dead: it should either be breaking away and running, bleeding heavily, surrendering,  crumpling to the ground, or acting like a real combatant. Numerics were forgivable in the old days when it was impossible to show that kind of action through mob models alone. Also to be fair I’m unsure about the technical level and requirements to enable this in an MMO now.

However, for external feedback it enriches the game design to make it more uncertain and more visual. Or audial: imagine how immersive it would be for a mob to randomly call for help at a certain hidden of threshold of health. It would require a lot of change in design to be effective though as it, and it would be an alien concept to many players. However I think it would make for an intense different style of play similar to PvPcentric games. Risk is not knowing.

The best example of this is Ico. You never know just how much damage the shadow creatures sent to capture Yorda can take, and it makes for some pulse-pounding fights as you desperately try to beat them down. No one really thinks of parsing Ico to see the difference in damage between stick and sword, and fights are not about mathematical balancing: they are about trying to keep Yorda from an eerie, implacable foe. You only know when you are done when their spawn portals slowly close and fade.

I think that reducing feedback can enrich battles that way by forcing players to focus on the fight as a fight, with all the uncertainty not knowing brings.

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