Over at Penny Arcade (http://www.penny-arcade.com), Tycho sez that WoW is "a game that is essentially a mechanism to obscure the loot table." I’ve thought about this, and I don’t agree with him.
Yes, it’s true that like many/most games created today, the WoW "reward schedule" is complex and robust, and has been very carefully polished. And, like most CRPG games, the rewards you get are 1) quest achievements, and 2) avatar upgrades (so, loot). But even laying aside the multiplayer aspects of WoW’s game experience, can we truly reduce it to nothing but an obscured loot table?
Let’s imagine…a hypothetical game, where your avatar is an Olympic high-jumper. The screen is filled with bars you can jump over, and if you succeed, your jump height is increased by a small amount. So of course you prioritize the bars, jumping over the small ones first, and working up to the large ones. You can choose to re-jump a bar, but its benefit is smaller each time.
You occasionally try a bar you know is too high, and usually you fail, and very occasionally you succeed. You keep tabs on the bars you’ve conquered, and work to make sure you’ve jumped over every bar on the screen, and to make sure your jump ability is eventually maxed out.
This is easy to imagine, ’cause it’s the structure of every CRPG (and many other game genres) ever made. And where’s the loot table? Well, the "loot", or reward, is both the increase in your avatar’s jump height, and the effect of that change (the set of bars that are suddenly within reach). Is the game obscuring this loot? No, of course not. It’s a very simple and transparent game mechanic.
What if we change some things? First, we modify the success reward (the stat boost you get for a successful jump) by a random number. Sometimes you get a double boost, sometimes you get nothing. This is just "intermittently reinforcing behavior" shown ages ago by B.F. Skinner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning).
Another change; every 2 minutes, all of the bars change by a small random number. Another; some bars secretly give no reward, while others give double. Some give rewards only during certain times of the day; others give rewards only if you jump several in a specific sequence.
After all these changes, the reward schedule isn’t so transparent, but it sounds more fun and challenging, right? You still care about maxing your (one) stat, and about jumping over all the bars. But now you have more things to care about. You see that more things seem unpredictable, and you want to figure them out. You got some bonuses, and you want to find out how to get more, so you can max your stat sooner.
Now we’re sounding more and more like WoW and similar games, right? So much complexity to figure out, just so you can maximize your stats. Is it a "mechanism to obscure the loot table"? No. It’s a bunch of tasks, some stats, and a whole lot of procedural complexity, which is there to make the game even more fun than just tasks and stats alone.
And the loot? That’s just stats. Aside from the aesthetic value of Onyx Platemail (remember, we were laying aside the multiplayer element, which includes showing off your cool armor to others), it’s just stats. We jump the bars to raise the stats (which is a reward).
In a previous blog post, I talked about Johnathan Blow and his lecture, http://braid-game.com/news/?p=129. In it, he asked the assembled game designers a simple question. If you remove the reward schedule from your game, do you have any game left? The implication was that the answer should be "yes", and that many designers would have to say "no".
I say the answer misses the point. Reward schedules or not, people play games for all kinds of different reasons. Even our high-jump game can be played to maximize stats, conquer all the bars, figure out all the underlying complexities, or just enjoy the trip. Saying that a game is just a "mechanism to obscure the loot table" says a lot more about the player, than about the game.