Oh theory crafting, the so called “bane” of the casual gaming experience whenever any sort of competition is involved. Theory crafting is quite an interesting phenomenon of online gaming, taking a very simple game/concept and expanding it so much that it becomes a complex monstrosity that changes every last facet of that game. For some people, theory crafting is one of the most interesting aspects of games, and to others, theory crafting ruins the game for them as they are there to just have fun. Some people enjoy the benefits of theory crafting without actually doing any on their own, and others find that it brings out the worst in people and forces them to do things that are counteractive against what they are playing the game for (fun). While I enjoy theory crafting, I used to be on the opposite side, especially when I first played WoW. But when it came down to doing content that I wanted to do, or sit on the sidelines and never experience it, I came over to the dark side.
So what is theory crafting? Easiest way to explain it is its the mathematical application of video games. But not simple math (sometimes it can be, but it never really gets to that point), generally speaking, you have complex formula’s that the game developers come up with that you have to either 1) solve for yourself to figure out, or 2) someone else does the work and gives you the formula. Generally speaking, theory crafting takes into account every last detail when coming up with the formula’s, such as gear, talents, skills (cooldowns, base damage, modifiers, range) buffs, debuffs, in game formulas for defensive stats, regeneration, skill rotation, and the list goes on. That is the long definition. Taking every last little bit of information into account to gain the best advantage possible. As you can see, its never simple. When factoring in things like gear, you have to know every last formula for each stat that item gives, exactly what stats are optimal for your character, diminishing returns, stats that it may be missing, and so on. Its really crazy to think about, and I am honestly very glad Arena Net is removing gear from the equation in PvP, that makes my job a lot easier.
So, what is an example of a game that is super simple in concept, but once you apply theory crafting that it becomes way more complex than it needs to be? Pokemon. For those who do not know what that game is, you have 6 Pokemon (monsters) on your team and you fight people’s Pokemon. There are some limitations, such as you can only have 4 moves on any one Pokemon at a time, which mainly serves as a limiting factor, and each Pokemon has 6 stats (attack, special attack, defense, special defense, speed, and HP) and each move has a number of uses called PP. Its a really simple concept that has never changed during its several long history of being a game. To be honest, this game probably will never evolve past these parameters, in fact, the only thing that has changed is from generation 1 and generation 2 with the separation of SPECIAL into special attack and special defense. You could play this game every day of your life and never know about the horrible thing I am about to tell you about (it honestly ruined a lot of the fun for me)
So simple on paper, now lets throw in theory crafting. In Pokemon, there are hidden values known as EVs (effort values), which you gain each time you defeat a Pokemon. The point of EVs was to give each adventure a unique feel as each time, your pokemon will have different stats and thus will always feel different each time you played the game. That means if you start off with a Squirtle in one game, you will have a very different Squirtle the second game because all the fights are randomly generated based on the area you are in. Outside of trainers and gym leaders, there is no way you can control which Pokemon you do fight. Each Pokemon (based on species so the same Pokemon, regardless of level, will award the same EVs) is assigned a specific value that never changes, so if you choose to fight that Pokemon on a Pokemon who does not benefit from that specific EV, you can ruin all of your hard work. Why is this? Because there is a cap to the number of EVs you can gain at 510 total but no stat can go higher than 255. Once you reach that 510 number, you can safely battle any Pokemon with no worry. Now, there is also stat growth based on natures (personalities), so the perfect Pokemon has a very specific nature and a very specific set of EVs. When I first tried to do this, it took a good, solid, 10+ hours worth of research and team construction. Similar to how any team game is set up where you build your team to synergize with others, you build teams around some very specific sets. Such as, you have defense heavy “Walls” (they generally have super high defense or health and generally have some way to heal themselves), “Strikers” (fast Pokemon who have high attack stats), “Sweepers” (really beefy and strong Pokemon), and “Inducers” which are either weather-based inducers or spikes, and then you have spinners or suppressors who counter inducers. You have STAB moves which are same type attack bonus attacks with super high base values, and the list goes on. Did I mention buffers and baton passers? Yeah, this game gets confusing when you start to think of this stuff.
So, you can definitely see why some people hate theory crafting, I just took a game that is fun on a very simple premise and turned it into a complex monstrosity based on a few simple principals that got horrendously abused. MMOs are no different. And now, not to entirely demonize theory crafting, sometimes its actually very handy when you don’t have to do any of the crafting. Having those numbers always available is what allows competitive teams to get ahead, but it also means that those wannabe competitive types will rage and put you down for not having the “optimal” build. Back during the BC days, Enhancement Shamans were considered very weak and no longer optimal, and since that was the class I played, I was always out of a guild. I got picked up eventually, and it also eventually came down to either changing or leaving. I changed because there was content I wanted to experience, and my change allowed me to do it. And basic theory crafting can lead to vast improvements to performance without actually changing your play style. So in a sense, theory crafting goes both ways. It can be very helpful and allow you to completely show your worth, or demonize your play style to everyone who wants to accomplish the content.
However, theory crafting is not the enemy but the content designed around having an optimal set up. World of Warcraft is very guilty of this, in that if you are not playing X class in X role, then you provide nothing to the raid and wont be taken as most of the time, you cannot be carried through a raid. This is bad design become it naturally alienates players who might play things that are not optimal. And if you go say “lol why don’t you change and be better?” then you have no soul. A person who is enjoying a game should not have to change the way they play if it means sacrificing fun. This was a problem with RIFT in that because of the flexibility, a lot of things become obsolete ,and despite being fun to play, become a waste because the flexibility wasn’t really flexible. RIFT was a game where if you were not playing the most optimal set up, or at least recommended then you were doing to have a hard time doing just about anything. RIFT begged for theory crafting, WoW developed extremely difficult content that could not be completed unless you were playing the most optimal build. Those two MMOs built themselves around theory crafting and RIFT failed, SWTOR failed (although I know nothing about that game and its theory crafting). WoW is slowly declining in its number of subscriptions, although that annual pass really did help solidify their numbers.
Guild Wars 2 is a different beast, yes there is going to be theory crafting, but taking out a few of those very crucial elements and so long as the game is really balanced, then theory crafting wont be a game breaking element. So far, since the game still is in beta, there is hardly anything we can really tell because the game will change rapidly and constantly to go with the opinions and findings of the player base. As such, theory crafting really has not effected the game and wont until future release. But with gear no longer being a factor in the pvp aspect of the game, we can see that theory crafting will be down to skill choice (and as far as I can tell, is fairly balanced) and talent choices. And since everyone is responsible for their own actions and mistakes (technically speaking, a single player can carry a whole dungeon run if played well enough). That and taking into consideration of mobility and such, as long as this game is balanced right, then theory crafting should be fairly less noticeable. Especially in which weapon choice is more optimal for damage and so forth. Now, no game will be free from this, and there will always be that top build that everyone who is anyone will follow. But so long as Arena Net is doing their job, then the game should still be fun, and still be accomplishable without the need to be steeped in the mathematical application of games. And as long as everything within the class is balanced (inter-class balance is impossible without every class being the exact same), then there will be multiple builds that are the best and you have many ways to play the same character. So hopefully this game won’t turn out like WoW, where in order to raid you have to play a specific class and a specific build, hopefully it won’t turn out like League of Legends where the meta and item builds dominate fun, hopefully it wont turn out like RIFT where you have so many choices but only a handful will ever be viable. But, only time will tell to how the game will turn out. Lets do this.