Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Difference Between Tedium And Challenge

A tweet from one esteemed Mr. Paul Soares Jr. kind of annoyed me today.  He's always had this habit of saying that Minecraft needs to be harder, and then suggesting something that either increases resource drain for no reward or that makes the player have to do the same things repeatedly.  Such is the case with this tweet, reproduced below for the lazy.

rage-inducing tweet from PSJ
In a later tweet, he acknowledged that "as" was a typo and said it should be "and" instead.
I haven't used a jump break in forever, so...  More after the break!

It's true, Notch was, at one point, considering making torches burn out after a while and have to be re-lit, and adding craftable lanterns for players who wanted permanent light.  He even said that to cater to the existing torch-dependent players, likely so that their bases wouldn't immediately go dark and fill with monsters after the update, that the lantern would take over the torch's block ID and the torch would get a new one, effectively turning all torches into lanterns post-update.  I, like many others, began stockpiling torches in preparation for this update, at one point having four double chests filled with torches.  Fortunately for all of us, Notch never made the change, and torches remain useful to this day.

I often use this quote from the AVGN Castlevania II: Simon's Quest episode, because he's right on the money: "It just makes us have to do more of the same monotonous stuff over again, and it's not fun, it's boring.".  This is precisely what a "torches burn out and you have to re-light them" update would add to Minecraft.  It wouldn't be particularly fun having to constantly re-light torches.  If the April Fools' update (Minecraft 2.0), which did have torch burn-out, is how it would be implemented, then it would put a tremendous strain on players' supplies of flint and iron, resources that are already hard to get during the early game where one is using torches primarily.  Once you get to the late game, where you've gotten glowstone out of the Nether, or even mid-game buckets of lava, torch burn-out wouldn't affect you anymore and they would be absolutely useless to you.

Now, I know that PSJ isn't stupid.  He just likes his survival crafting gamesA lot.  He's suggesting this change as a way to "spice up" gameplay in a game he loves.  But this change would be bad for Minecraft as a whole.  Why?  Because it doesn't add challenge, like he really wants.  All it adds is tedium.  "What's the difference between challenge and tedium?", you ask?  Well, I'll tell you.

Challenge is a good thing.  It's what every gamer wants.  We go into a game to be faced with a task that seems insurmountable, but the tools and methods to make it surmountable are laid out before us and we have to obtain them.  This usually involves solving puzzles, fighting bosses, levelling up, getting better equipment, etc., and instills a sense of progression and achievement into the player.

Tedium, on the other hand, is precisely this torch burn-out and re-lighting system.  That torch is never going to stay lit permanently, no matter how many times you light it.  The task is only ever insurmountable, and is an added resource drain during the most difficult part of the game where you're struggling to get established.  Another example that's been in Minecraft for ages, that's applicable: getting flint from gravel.  It's a fairly low chance that the Fortune enchantment can boost, up to 100% with Fortune III, in the late-game.  So if you need flint in the early game, you get to experience the tedium of placing gravel and breaking it with a shovel repeatedly to game the RNG until that entire stack of gravel turns into flint.

This is where I invoke a Dungeons and Dragons-related quote from Vechs, author of the Super Hostile series, slightly paraphrased because I don't remember exactly how it went: "Say that a rogue wants to lockpick a chest in an open field.  There's good visibility all around, and there are no monsters.  So they try to lockpick the chest, and fail.  There's nothing around to threaten their well-being, so they try again and again until they succeed.  Most good DMs in this situation would acknowledge that there's no impending threat to the player, and just let them 'take a 20' and lockpick the chest successfully."

So, if you're secure in your base, what's the difference between placing and breaking gravel repeatedly, hoping that the game gives you flint, and just getting the entire stack of gravel converted to flint instantly?  Time placing and breaking blocks, and resource drain making shovels.  If you're secure in your torch-lit base and have a flint and steel ready, what's the difference between having torches burn out and having them provide persistent light?  Time spent running around lighting them, and resource drain making more flint and steel as yours run out.

I realize that in the real world, torches burn out after a while.  However, this is Minecraft, not the real world.  Minecraft is a game.  Games exist partly to allow the people who play them escape reality in some manner.  Yes, having torches burn out in Minecraft would be more realistic, but would it be fun?  Can you honestly say with a straight face that you'd enjoy having to run around with a flint and steel re-lighting the torches in your base?  Can you honestly say you'd enjoy having to clear your base of hostiles just because you haven't gotten to the point in the game where you can actually have a secure base?  I can't.  I thought the whole notion of digging a hidey hole on the first night and then building a house in the days thereafter was to establish a sense of security in the player, so that they could then venture forth and accomplish what they set out to accomplish.

The other thing: Minecraft is a sandbox game.  Survival and crafting are two parts of it, yes, but not every game with survival and crafting needs to be the same.  Pick a route to take and stick with it.  The route Notch took with light in Minecraft was to have it always be persistent.  The player depends on it for their security.  There needs to be persistent light available in the early game.  Resources just aren't prevalent enough at that time to allow for a system whereby you have to re-light torches.

The balanced place to put a non-permanent light source is actually the late-game, where the player has the resources to devote to it.  To make it desirable, simply give this light source a higher light radius, and a clearly defined length of time that it stays lit, perhaps defined by how much fuel you place into it.  I'm thinking something along the lines of the camp fire and fire pit items in Don't Starve.  That would be a non-permanent light system that would actually make sense.  That way, the player could light their lanterns that give off lots of light as the sun is setting, and be reasonably certain that they'll stay lit long enough to give themselves some sense of safety.  And true to the nature of a sandbox game, if the player doesn't want to use it, they don't have to.

Minecraft has enough tedium as-is, due to its fairly high level of resource grind, and the enchantment system using experience gained from mining and killing enemies.  To some extent, the resource grind is acceptable, and it's always been pretty easy to find a spawner and make a grinder out of it.  The nerfs to healing and regeneration potions, and the change to the golden apple recipe to make it more expensive (gold ingots instead of nuggets, increased the price 9 times) are what led to me playing the game for creative mode redstone instead of survival.  These changes were made to cater to the balance-happy PvP crowd, apparently with no consideration to how it would affect PvE.  PvE and PvP are very different animals, and having both but only balancing the game for one will severely agitate the people who prefer the other.

Please understand that I'm not trying to act "entitled" here.  I'm simply trying to make the point that tedium only annoys and frustrates gamers, and hurts the overall gameplay experience.  Also, when you change something as fundamental as this that everyone's used to, you're going to see a lot of backlash.  Torches have been in the game for a very long time and have always provided persistent light.  If there was going to be a change to them, it should have happened a long time ago.  It's simply too late to make the change now.

I also don't mean any kind of insult towards PSJ.  He's been a prominent member of the Minecraft community for a very long time, because he started what many consider to be the first Minecraft survival tutorial series on YouTube, and is overall a pretty awesome guy that I respect.  I just disagree with him on this subject, that's all.

If this gameplay mechanic is truly desired, then it should be the subject of a mod made by someone in the community.  It will have to deal with other things, like Jack o' Lanterns, which are crafted with torches; and lava, which is plentiful but not infinite, and produces an infinite amount of light if you're creative with routing it around your base.  Since balance zealots are commonly overzealous, it will probably make glowstone, iron ore veins, and flint rarer, just to add extra tedium and frustration.  This type of gameplay change simply doesn't belong in vanilla Minecraft.  That's my final answer, Regis.

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