“Playing a game that is maybe a little fluffy, or maybe has some degenerate strategies, to me that feels like... betrayal. Like I've been tricked into wasting the only un-replenish-able resource I have: time.”
That’s a quote from Adam Saltsman that appeared in last month’s article on clones, and it’s been occupying my thoughts ever since. This is what stuck in my mind: how natural it seems for the topic of degenerate strategies to suddenly enter into a discussion about copy-cat games.
But what do degenerate strategies or filler have to do with clones? Nothing, in fact, except that most of us dismiss all of these together as “illegitimate” design.
I regularly find in single play, though, that I will actively look for and spam the heck out of degenerate strategies whenever I can. As long as the agency acquired hasn’t yet reached the point of boredom (and that, of course, is a rather significant limitation), these remain strangely compelling gameplay loops.
The truth is that it feels too much like a legitimate problem solving style for me to really be against it. It feels too much like zealous optimization, or an investigation into what extremes of player agency can be reached. As well, when the strategy is self-discovered, or requires extensive amounts of time and effort for substantive returns, the results often feel justified.
I should probably define what a “degenerate strategy” even is at this point, for those unfamiliar with the term.
Broadly speaking, a degenerate strategy is the use (or less neutrally, abuse) of a singular mechanic to raise player agency to a disproportionate degree. This is generally accomplished through repeating or stacking a single activity which, in itself, isn’t necessarily unbalancing, but through repetition becomes increasingly so.
The Ambiguity of Legitimacy
I’d like to make the case in this post that degenerate mechanics are in fact entirely common, and even fundamental to some of our most celebrated games. For an even-handed analysis to take place, however, we need to separate the idea of unethical play from the idea of degenerate mechanics.
Without engaging in apologetics, let’s first acknowledge that rules in a game are unstable things for a multitude of reasons.
Because interface and implementation must be practical, there is usually a grey area between the rules as they appear to the player, the rules as they are “intended”, and the rules that are enforced. Frequently, there’s not even a way to tell which player actions the game keeps track of, and if the game doesn’t tell the player about a rule, the player will most likely never know about it. This effectively leaves much about rules to implicit understanding and interpretation.
Consequently, many of our rules are actually self-imposed conceptions of sportsmanship or justified achievement—pre-emptive limitations meant to ensure that we get credit for everything done right and don’t get blamed for anything done wrong. Unfortunately, what is out of bounds to one player can be fair game to another. And, if we are honest, the very thing that was off-limits just moments before can look fair if it falls on the side of the player. So the rules we use within the same game aren’t the same for all players, or even for the same player, at all times.
Degenerate strategies, then, regularly fall into that grey area where there is no way to tell if a certain action is simply allowed, or if it has been designed. Whether or not playing a given degenerate strategy can be considered degenerate at all therefore comes down to player interpretation of design intent, which of course is by nature unknowable.
Is it the misuse of a design oversight, or the logical conclusion to the existing rules? The question is further complicated by whether or not being able to identify such design oversights itself can be considered a valid skill, or by how much player skill enters into the execution of such insights (which further raises the question, can skill make anything legitimate?) .
None of this is to claim that unfair or “unethical” play does not exist, merely that rules just aren’t as hard and fast as we like to imagine.
A Few of Our Favorite Things
Some applied cases, then: examples which most of us consider fair, but prominently feature degenerate strategies in the design.
Modern survival games or roguelikes that employ at least a moderate level of randomization, for instance, are all about legitimizing degenerate mechanics. True, they usually require some degree of skill for the player to retain the returns from each loop, but it’s still mostly the case that chance has a nearly deterministic impact on how far the player’s skills can go. Hence much of the “strategy” in these games becomes avoiding “actual gameplay” long enough to even the odds, and to just keep revisiting the same locales that churn out the most loot. It is, in essence, degenerate strategy made macro.
Or another example: many of us prefer open world games because they allow us to amass agency at our own pace, outside the bounds of exhaustible or non-repeating content. But utilizing these allowances to build up one’s potential to an overpowering degree, so that one can blast through that exhaustible content, is, at its core, also a degenerate strategy. We need only look at the Modron maze in Planescape: Torment (the equivalent in an “unopen” game), or indeed the farming of any of the respawning enemy NPCs in that game, to see how true this is.
Moreover, we often actively avoid questlines and the like in such games (or at least we delay completing them) because once that content is exhausted, once the potential hoarded through open leveling is expended, the “degenerate” nature of that gameplay becomes entirely too obvious. What actually was the point of all that time spent on amassing imaginary power, particularly once there’s nowhere left to spend it? 
In the example of Planescape, it is this same realization, this same puncturing, which makes the conclusion to that game so powerful. The ever-presence of “degenerate play” goes firmly hand-in-hand with its overall theme. Oppositely, the brilliance of Skyrim is that it contains non-exhaustible and scaling opportunities (dragons, giants, etc.) for players to keep testing—and thus re-validating—their amassed potential.
Suspension of Disbelief in Games
Let’s expand a bit on that “puncturing”. The thing is, games are fundamentally about repeating the same patterns or processes to completion. Naturally, this is true of most things people do. For games though, because the gains made in a game are mostly intangible, the somewhat unsavory consequence of this is that achieving “fun” (or meaningfulness) basically comes down to causing the player to ignore, forget, not notice—or even embrace—compulsive redundancy. Which is to say the player needs to forget it’s all artificial.
What a degenerate strategy does, then, is cut through all the obfuscation to expose the underlying artifice in its starkest form. It reveals the implicit as only being implicit, that the rules only have meaning because the player chooses to submit to their arbitrariness, and chooses to believe in a context in which they aren’t arbitrary.
Strip away this belief and suddenly engagement becomes pointless. If you can’t believe in the reality of the rules, you can’t believe in the reality of their outcomes either, and intangibility abruptly looms large. This is why it feels like the player has been tricked or cheated—it’s the uncanny valley of gameplay, if you will.
In the mechanical sense, degenerate play is degenerate because it breaks down immersion (and subsequently engagement) in the long term.
(Notably, we have a tendency to privilege games with obscured rules. Obscuring rules without frustrating the player is a difficult trick to pull off, but it can increase immersion by causing the player to conjure up more implicit rules. It causes us to read into the mechanics and project our own beliefs into the game. And obviously, we are inherently motivated to believe our beliefs are valid, which makes the immersion last longer.)
Accordingly, the problem with degenerate mechanics isn’t really the mechanics themselves so much as it is that it’s extremely difficult for a game to be engaging if it feels fundamentally irrelevant. Obviously, anything we mentally label “degenerate” or “redundant” is going to fail this hurdle. And this problem applies to every game, regardless of the presence of “degeneracy”.
Relevance = Reality
One repercussion of the threat of intangibility is that few people can continue to enjoy a game unless they feel they can walk away from it with something. Any game without some sort of externalization begins to feel increasingly irrelevant over time. And the less we care about what is externalized, the faster a game grows stale.
(In the final sense of the term, games become psychologically degenerate [and again, this is different still from the mechanical and the play-ethical] when we feel we can’t walk away: we need to get that vindication that our time wasn’t spent in vain.) 
In other words, suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and if the returns for time costs can’t be material, they must at least be social. They must exist in the minds of other players, too, even if we only imagine that they do. Whether we are including/excluding ourselves in a real or imagined community, or engaging in feedback with the developers through the game, it’s how much a game’s mechanics can be contextualized which lends it any sense of permanence, and thus lasting value.
We can easily see this in a game like DayZ, whose core gameplay is, as argued earlier, fundamentally degenerate (in the mechanical sense). Players are driven to ever more extremes of depravity or decency because, once you have all the agency you want, what else is there to do?
The only way to keep one’s accumulated agency from losing value/relevance is to keep pushing the boundary between “reality” and “game” ever further. The central mechanic of DayZ therefore isn’t survival, its social reality bending, which is what makes it so unsettling, moving, and compelling. And the push in fact works in either direction—towards the morbid/sincere or towards the absurd.
Even something as basic as a game’s difficulty level serves as a social contextualizer—serves to heighten the “reality” of a game. Difficult in relation to what? Difficult for whom? Beating a game with a reputation for difficulty thus immediately places the player higher within an imagined hierarchy—it places the player within something that exists outside of the game. Correspondingly, any fixation about skill (or by extension design depth and complexity) that isn’t motivated by self-improvement alone is actually a fixation about social relevance or placement, about things external to the game.
And we’ve now reached a point where there is a noticeable preference for games with few rules that don’t have any quests or any exhaustible content at all. That is, the rewards can now be almost fully external. Such games existed before, of course, but less prevalent were active communities and platforms which made externalizing the activities in them so readily possible. In a way, it’s only recently become feasible for the majority of players for these games to be sustainably fun.
Awareness Becomes Compulsion
Consider this discussion between which Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone, upcoming Volume) and Jordan Amaro (designer at Kojima Productions). Mr. Amaro comments that the stealth in MGS5: Phantom Pain can be made significantly more difficult through tweaking the options. But Mr. Bithell responds:
Whatever the default is, that's the version of your game I'll play, because honestly I make the assumption when I start a game that the default is the definitive experience. And that's the experience 99 per cent of your players will have.
I do think there is a very troubling trend in gamer culture that we care too much about what the person sat next to us is experiencing, like how is that affecting my game? Especially in a single-player, focused experience, it's none of my business how someone else plays the game. As a consumer I don't care. If you make it so your game can be turned into the hardest game ever, and I'm playing that version and the guy over there is playing that other version, great, we're both being entertained in exactly the way we want.
The issue gamer culture has right now is in some way the guy having the easier experience devalues the experience of the other person. You see this in all of the discussions - this idea that, if so and so has that thing they want then that affects me. You see if [sic] in the debate around sexism and race in games. If that person over there can do the thing I think is wrong, if this game is available that doesn't specifically cater to my tastes, then it affects me. There's an entitlement to that discussion that bothers me. It bothers me that there will be people who complain that, well I shouldn't have to go to the options, it should be by default, it should be the game I want. And I'm kind of with you guys. I think that's fair enough.
I will say, though, I do feel like the default game experience in Metal Gear Solid will be whatever you guys set it to be at the start. There we differ.
I don’t think this “trend” is anything new, however. It’s simply that it’s much harder now to ignore how other players play than it used to be. As far as mechanics go, the issue again comes down to player investment of time. We have to keep at bay the thought that there are players willing to pay a lot more (or able to pay a lot less) time than we are because it threatens to devalue the achievements we have bought with our own time—it threatens to devalue our time itself.
This compels us to perform all sorts of mental gymnastics. What does “default” in MGS even mean? Slaughtering every enemy in sight? Or completing the game without a single kill?
You turn off all the hand holding because that’s how you make it more real, your achievements more permanent (than “99%”). Conversely, you avoid even looking at the options because that’s how you keep from breaking into the realization that you are playing it somehow “less real” than you could. You keep it default because that’s how you keep the gaminess of it all—the fluidity of its rules—from shattering your rule-immersion.
As long as we can say “that’s the definitive version anyway”—that that’s the version “99 percent of players” will play—we can avoid uncomfortable time expenditure comparisons from intruding on our personal experiences. The self-conflict is that the very awareness of that imagined “99 percent of players” leads to the denouncement, and indeed denial, of the fact that that awareness penetrates our thinking. We shouldn’t care (because playing a game should be worthwhile by its own merits), and yet we do (because, in the end, it’s usually not enough).
And that is the real purpose of our insistence that rules are absolute, that everyone must play the same way. We need to believe that our efforts are at least equal to that of others so we can believe we can ignore them. And anything that threatens this delicate immersion must be degenerate.
Translating this into a multiplayer setting such as an MMO, players generally either play PvP, or they don’t. And there is a tendency on both camps to view the other as “degenerate” (mechanically on the one side, behaviorally on the other). (Actually, that same division also exists between those that play multiplayer at all, and those that don’t.)
We can also see this in attitudes concerning achievements (or MMOs themselves for that matter), where players typically fall into one of two camps: those that love them because they add to “permanence” through acknowledgement, shared experience, and visibility, and those that actively avoid them because they are such stark reminders of the time costs for, and the arbitrariness of, what is deemed “noteworthy”.
Play, then, is a persistent dialectic between personal values and socially perceived values. And to my mind, this constant negotiation between what we wish to value and what others seem to value is one of the most important things about play that make it so worthwhile. 
Lars Doucet already talked recently about how the appearance of popularity can impact a game’s sales (and, because games are socially competitive, I would argue that this is more severe and more detached from design quality when it comes to games than music, as in the study he cites). An ulterior goal of this post was to explore just why that is.
Because of our need for games to feel “real”, there is a point at which our behavior surrounding certain games, design features or mechanics becomes something akin to politicized agendas. Players will vigorously promote or denounce them based primarily on principle or social alignment. And, in the age of wide-reaching internet communities, Greenlight, and Kickstarter, this is truer than it ever was before.
In the article I opened this post with, Ian Bogost notes that, “For ordinary people, playing 2048 is just no different from playing Threes, no more than eating Kroger Flakes is different than eating Kellogg's Corn Flakes... really, nobody thinks about it. It's just not a thing to people, not any more than they think about Kellogg's.”
This is probably true, but only in the same manner in which Pabst Blue Ribbon found a market with the rise of hipster culture: hipster youths drank Pabst because hipster youths drank Pabst. It’s not that nobody thinks about the brand, it’s that the brand doesn’t matter if it is socially relevant. “Ordinary” people play 2048 because “ordinary” people are playing 2048, not Threes.
Speaking of Mr. Bogost, how was it that a “game” like Cow Clicker could exist to reach the audience scope that it did, despite all original intentions? Well, because people played it like a game. Rules were followed. Values were projected. Comparisons were made. And that’s all it takes in the end to create play, if not game.
If the above analysis is true, we have to accept the strong likelihood that anticipating the social discussion or cultural evaluation around a game is actually an integral part of its design. The trouble is that we have to care about a game—about the self-expression or self-worth we can demonstrate, the community we can participate in, or the self-improvement we can achieve through the game—before we can care about a game. Once we do, though, even the most trivial mechanics seem vital (which, of course, is the ethical danger of game design).
To a mildly unsettling degree, how well a game is sold (that is, how well it convinces players before they even try it) has an impact on how its mechanics feel.  The more it is promotable and promoted, the more the imagined community grows, the more the players’ own time will feel important and relevant, the more the game becomes enjoyable. 
Am I trying to argue that we should be expending our energies on marketing and manipulative relevance instead of design? Of course not, and that seems patently loathsome to me besides.  And yet all of us must undeniably engage with an audience.
Let me put this another way, and I want to thank Liz England for reminding me of this question. What does a game designer do? The answer is deceptively simple: select and arrange rules in such a way that players want to engage them. And to achieve this is to know what is important to our players.
We can generate perishable fads, then, or we can choose to resonate with more lasting values. To create games that rely on a passing sense of social relevance, or to create games that inform and influence the very values which players consider important, and challenge them to believe in their own. And it is the latter which we most naturally and persistently want to share.
As for “degenerate” gameplay, I think the aforementioned example of Planescape alone aptly demonstrates: we can have our cake and eat it too.
 I am defending degenerate mechanics in this post, but I’ve also previously complained about them specifically for this reason. In particular, my gripe about Guild Wars 2 was that it greatly prioritized leveling over character building compared to its predecessor. GW2 is built almost entirely around event farming, which is to say that degenerate gameplay is its core mechanic. The game is compelling enough until you hit the high 70s, but once you’re done leveling, well, you’re basically done with the game. There just isn’t that much variety to the builds you can pursue (at least, compared to its predecessor).
 I see this a lot in multiplayer games, where players will ragestay because of some need to avenge a perceived slight, generally making everyone’s experience miserable (or absurdly hilarious) all around.
 My statement earlier that any fixation about skill that isn’t motivated by self-improvement is actually about social relevance sounded quite judgmental, but my actual opinion is that that’s the way it should be. It is valuable that both of these motivations should co/counter-exist.
 Consider Dead Island and that trailer vis-ŕ-vis Dead Island: Riptide (although, not having played Riptide, I can’t comment on whether or not it is genuinely worse than its predecessor). Is this evidential? Well, not really. Still, an interesting case. One also wonders if the collector’s edition debacle for the latter game affected its subsequent gameplay assessment.
 Vlambeer’s decision to publish Nuclear Throne through Twitch—a naturally proselytizing community with a built-in sense of shared visibility—thus makes absolute perfect sense in my mind.
 An (unfair, probably inaccurate) example of manipulative relevance: I am reminded of when Apple managed to return from the brink with the introduction of the initially technically underwhelming, yet flashy and pseudo-intellectually appealing (backed by Jeff Goldblum no less) iMac. I mean, seriously? “i”Mac? That has to do with the internet, right?
One could argue—ok, I will argue—that Apple became a lifestyle brand at that time. A triumph of image over technical specs, if you will (initially anyway). Speaking rather irrelevantly and solipsistically for myself, this, not to mention much cheaper alternatives, is one of the reasons I’ve grudgingly (or irrationally) yet to buy an Apple product, or have anything to do with its App Store. (Those apps on iPhone/Facebook? Not me. We just share the same name, apparently. I suppose it says something that I feel the need to publically declare this. Also, I google myself, yeah.)
Oh how easily are things politicized, are principles laid down.