Beyond the numbers: are they just for über-nerds?January 28th, 2009 by Ben
Hit points, experience points, reputation points, strength, critical hit percentage, intelligence, agility… There’s a long list of “stats” common to games today (RPGs in particular), and most of the time the numbers behind these stats are visible to the player. So do players really want to calculate their crit percentages and crunch the benefits of +12 stamina vs. +10 intelligence? Is it enough for NPCs to express their feelings toward you as +5 love, +7 attraction, and -30 fear?
Asked another way, is it possible to derive any real drama from all the rigid computer logic behind our favorite games? Earnest Adams gives his thoughts in a recent Gamasutra feature about “Numbers, Emotions, and Behavior.”
Adams’ argument is a familiar one: video games will never rise to their full potential as long as designers continue to focus more attention on the numerical mechanics behind a game than the human element of the game’s characters.
In principle, I agree. Games do need characters that behave in more believably human ways. We as gamers would all be better for it, and the industry would get more respect. The constant focus on math isn’t a very “humanistic” thing; it feels more mechanical.
The difficulty, though, is that video games aren’t just about characters and stories — they’re called games for a reason. We play them. They have rules and structure. We engage in goal-oriented activities and try to win more often than lose. In a fundamental sense, games are mechanical. If you take these elements away from an interactive experience, it no longer qualifies as a game.
Adams notes in his article that “all that emphasis on gear [in RPG games] seems distinctly nerdy.” He’s talking here about the desire to collect the best items that provide the best stat bonuses and give you the best chance at beating your opponent(s). Is this nerdy? Maybe, but this behavior isn’t the exclusive domain of hardcore gamers. Fantasy sports requires the same type of in-depth attention and number crunching, and no one calls it nerdy.
Perhaps the difference is that fantasy sports don’t offer the potential for narrative the way video games do. It’s pure gaming with no delusions of artistic grandeur.
So what’s a game designer to do? Hide the numbers at all costs or give your hardcore players something to sink their teeth into? The answer to this quandary, like most good quandaries, is likely somewhere in the middle, and it definitely depends on the type of game you’re trying to make. Could World of Warcraft benefit from more compelling dramatic action or characterization? Absolutely. But would it be so ridiculously popular if it wasn’t possible to agonize over item stats and DPS? No way.