In the real world I am not much of a tinkerer. I can fix a few bits and pieces on a car, and build a PC, but when it comes to actual tweaking and tinkering, figuring out what I can be boosted, what can be overclocked, and what must be tuned, my talents – and my ambitions – are fairly limited. Not so in the gaming world, of course, where I have spent thousands of hours plugging objects into equipment slots and pulling them out again, just to watch the variables shift up and down. Watching the numbers change, it seems, is sometimes enough.
As usual, I spent some time thinking about the origins of this habit in my own gaming career, and I suspect it was in the MMO era that I really became obsessed with it. Of course the tweaking of equipment to alter stats and abilities had a long history in RPGs and related kinds of games, but this column is specifically about my interest in coming up with “builds”, which I think has become more pronounced over time. In my own gaming career this sort of thing has had deep foundations: in pen & paper games, and in tabletop games such as Warhammer. These days, however, I feel like it is at the heart of the kind of gaming experience I most enjoy.
The youthful Rossignol however was far more interested in working on his own gun twitchy skills, although there was an element of configuration tinkering to get the smoothest frame-rates out of Quake III, the game that really dominated my life after University. (And got me fired from my first proper job.) It wasn’t until a little later that the tweaking habit resurfaced, and began to turn itself into one of my obsessive gaming traits.
So yes. “Builds” are often what this sort of thing boils down to: a set of numbers across your states that are good for something in the game, often dealing lots of damage, or absorbing lots of damage. When people talk about this stuff they tend to talk about “min/max” ideal builds, but in my experience the most open-ended games often allow for some grey areas: peculiar hybrid builds that allow a player to do something fairly well, or to multi-class as the situation demands. The min/max philosophies have become particularly prevalent when playing games where there is a distinct need to specialise – traditional MMOs of all kinds. But it was in slightly less predictable takes on this ideas when I really began to be interested. In fact, I can remember the year in which tweaking colonised my imagination: 2003, when I spent the summer playing Planetside and Eve Online. Both these games fed the tweaking need voraciously, allowing vastly different roles and builds with a single character. Watching people haphazardly invent weird ways to defeat their enemies (bands of haulers fitted with electronic counter-measures in Eve, for example) are one of the unexpected secret pleasures of gaming.
My own increased interest in tinkering continued well into the following years, as I played huge amounts of World Of Warcraft and City Of Heroes. The tanking build I had for my huge bumble-bee coloured tanker in City Of Heroes was a wonder to me. Not unique, certainly, but it also wasn’t immediately obvious. Yet to be the only one standing against dozens of werewolves, and still be there when the group rezzed and reformed for another go was an incredible moment.
The satisfaction of this sort of activity is well known to game designers, of course. MOBA type games sing to this sort of tune, daily, and it stands as a key aspect of their appeal to most gamers, and consequently the success of the games as F2P experiences. The auction house in World Of Warcraft, and Eve’s huge player-driven economy are both driven by a sort of stats-based aspiration. It isn’t so much that the sword glows with mystical power – although that is always satisfying, too – but that it imbues this effect, or that bonus. Does it stack with the other items you are holding? And what does that mean for your performance in the game world? It’s a process that is part scientific-method, part collector hobby, and – usually – part tactical calculation.
This year that sort of satisfaction will be returning to my gaming life in force, I think, with Perpetuum’s robot tweaking (echoes of Eve) – which I have been playing and writing about extensively – and also with the upcoming Planetside 2 and Firefall. Both games are set to rich in possible specialisms, and ripe for the kind of ongoing, evolving, tweaking and tinkering – as well as the work that’s required to reach the necessary skills and resources – that make these kinds of experiences so persistently satisfying.
You take it away with you, too. Once you are familiar with a game’s systems you begin to sit on the buss and think: would this work? What difference would that make? New ideas for builds appear in the shower, or at work. This, I think, is gaming at its most powerful, when you are able to escape into its systems even when you are not playing. Imagining uses for things, or planning for exactly how to obtain the things you need to continue your tweaking project. There’s a profound satisfaction to be found in here, and it’s one that I think non-gamers dismiss because they don’t quite understand it.
Tweaking might just be numbers in an imaginary universe, but they are my numbers. They are a craft that I have pursued and will aspire to perfect. And it’s never better than in that moment in games like Eve, (or currently in Perpetuum) when the tweaking pays off: I survive by a few hit points, I take down that unsuspecting enemy with an esoteric loadout. The joy of tweaking is often in just in watching those numbers shift and grow, but it is also in the winning.