Theorycraft is the attempt to mathematically analyze game mechanics in order to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the game. The term originated in the Starcraft community as composite colloquialism between the name Starcraft and Game Theory. For clarification, Game Theory is the analysis of circumstantial and general factors in order to understand the decision making process of individualized and group players for the purposes of creating generally more favorable predictions, behaviors, and overall outcomes.
Many of the terms that we have come to know today have in some way been a result of theorycraft. The term DPS, itself, was one of the first advents of theorycraft as it applies to real-time games. Gearscore is another highly used, yet still incredibly controversial, result of theorycraft. Theorycraft has an impact upon everything from User Interface setup and customization, to build and rotation discussions, to event recording. In general, as a player becomes more involved in the game, they also become (wittingly or unwittingly) more involved with theorycraft and the effects of its practice. This being said, theorycraft as a practice can be both healthy and unhealthy for a player depending on a number of factors.
Many players get involved in theorycraft as a direct result of playing the game. This is often ultimately because they want to be a better player at what it is they already do. This often requires analyzing what they are doing correctly or incorrectly, and then realigning the behaviors to match their new desires. Often some research and experimentation goes into this process and there tend to be verifiable results.
Scope of Theorycraft
Theorycraft, while being a game-specific term, is actually an extremely common process to most games. In chess, theorists analyze openings, advanced concepts, frequent occurances, and general game practice. Until relatively recently, game theorists were few and only performed within the scope of the game they were active enthusiasts in. During the collectible card game boom, game theory started being applied by more and more players, and individual theorists began expanding their practices to multiple games as it was recognized that many similar games utilized similar factors and aspects of play. Today, game theory is so prevalently used by developers and players alike, in all games, that it leads to many conflicts between game authors and players.
Benefits of Proper Theorycraft
Theorycraft has a wide range of applications, including but not limited to: innovations in thought and expanded game theory; macros, scripts and mods for UI customization; rotations, build and practice analysis; and even goal and class specific guides. It is important to note that such innovations are only beneficial when the theories have been appropriately researched, disclosed and explained so that further applications may be understood, found and researched.
Macros come in a wide variety of flavors. Some macros are simply for variety of play, such as a macro which picks a random mount or pet. Others are communication macros while others are for minimizing negative factors or maximizing positive specific aspects of play. When macros optimize game play, these are strongly influenced by Theorycraft.
For further information and examples, see:
- Macros section of UI Beginners Guide - Highlights macros, their purposes and the basics of how to write them.
- Useful macros - A list of macros for a wide range of purposes with some navigation to class-specific macros.
Several mods are direct extensions of some theorycraft. For theories illustrated by highly complex formulae, these mods can perform the analysis, comparisons and results in a smooth, non-intrustive interface. There are also several mods that provide access to more or specific information based on group role dynamics. Finally, some mods simply fine tune behavior by extending the capabilities of a single button. Listed below are just a couple of commonly used mods.
- Gearscore - This mod applies a score to every character based on their current equipment. While the use of this mod to judge players is highly controversial, many players use this as a guide anyway, so it is listed here.
- AuctionLite/Auctioneer - These two mods (cannot be used together) have two different takes about which information and structure is most important to sellers. They can track historical pricing, sales, make price recommendations, etc.
- Recount - Calculates DPS for individuals, parties, and raids. This can be tracked per fight and can even provide useful graphs and reports.
Most guides are written is such a way that they often maximize on a fundamental concept. For instance, Leveling Guides are geared toward Resource Management of time as a resource. Gold Guides are the same, but for inventory and profit. As a further extension, class guides are often biased toward the currently accepted roles and practices of the class. The real issue with so many of these guides is that they fail to explain the concepts that build them. The best guides are recycled and reused, and essentially teach the reader how to understand the concepts so that they may be applied as circumstances change.
Behaviors and Practices
Ever wonder why somebody says "use X spell instead of Y spell". Often, it has its foundations in theory. Now, what is important to note is that just because somebody tells you this, does not mean that they understand (or even know) the theory that makes it true or the circumstances under which the statement applies. Furthermore, nearly every spell in World of Warcraft has some use. Without the explanation, this is simply propaganda for the social gaming engine. However, contrary to many critics, it is not merely subjective. Below are a couple practices that have become common, with and without the understanding, as a result of theorycraft.
- Rotation - A good rotation maximizes upon a specific party's need. The repetitive practice is often easily remembered and typically provides consistently comparable results regardless of the encounter.
- Random Dungeons - This is a case where the developers listened very strongly to the players. Many dungeons were being neglected because they were too hard to get to and the reward wasn't worth the time (to many). This feature revitalized a lot of the older dungeons and added a lot of value to the game. It must also be noted, however, that these dungeons were largely neglected due to theorycraft in the first place.
Dangers of Improper Theorycraft
Theorycraft is only as useful as the number of people and concepts that can apply it. This requires that specific circumstances regarding the experiments and, hence, the overall theory be disclosed. Many of the spreadsheets that analyze rotations, for instance, do not advise the reader that the results may be contingent upon a particular UI placement, or that the players involved use hotkeys, rather than mouse-clicks, both of which can dramatically influence the numbers. The can create inflated views of importance on particular builds or practices, without the proper fundamental backing for which to properly interpret the results.
Lack of Understanding
A Typical Example
DPS is a fairly common and understood term within the World of Warcraft and MMORPG community. However, for many players, World of Warcraft is their first MMORPG. A new player who hears DPS, might understand the definition itself, but not understand what raises or lowers it. This can lead to many levels (and even characters) of randomly picking and choosing gear and abilities that have bigger numbers, but are actually the wrong numbers.
A Quick Example
- Assume Player1 has a powerful build, but relatively low experience with online games. They wait for every spell to complete before they cast a new one.
- Assume Player2 has a weak build, but extensive experience with online games. They start every new spell .5 second before the current spell is completed. They perform the button press twice every time they want to cast.
Player2 is most definitely the more effective (notice I didn't say stronger) player, because their character will always be active. Something will always be happening. This weaker build is seemingly stronger to unassuming players because of his play style and not the actual build or rotation dynamics.
In contrast, Player1 will generally have .75 seconds of inactivity between casts (without accounting for large lag spikes) because they have to react to the completion. For instant spells and 1.5 seconds casting times, that is approximately 33% ineffective time, dramatically weakening the potency of their powerful build.
Situations like the above occur frequently within amateur game theorists and casually game enthusiasts just entering the theoretical gaming world. Most of this is due to the lack of disclosure by more experienced theoreticians. Sometimes it is simply that a basic principle of play is assumed when no such assumption is valid. Because the play experience is so subjective, this leads to theories that are too general and lack the primary components to be useful.
Furthermore, such theories can cause players to believe that the game world is entirely inconsistent, with little cohesion: a sequence of random rolls. This is ever to far from the truth. This feeling, however, is justified when veterans of the game purport to educate the masses, while failing to provide the necessary information.
- In immature theories, random factors may not be considered. This often results in overly naive models and inaccurate formulae and calculations.
- If a given theory does not involve any idea of probability, then the model is unreliable due to its overly simplistic approach.
- Overly linear theories are not often reflective of the published game mechanics. This can lead to poor understanding and false assumptions.
- Players, believing they have an equal (or better) understanding of the game and its mechanics, may argue that the authors do not know how what they are doing, or how they have built the game, affects the players.
- Developers and Story-writers must constantly adjust their game to account for meta-gamers and exploiters. This is because the game shares a wider audience than the aforementioned group and their insights can create a negative experience for those who are not in the same realm.
Beginning your own Theorycraft
When starting your foray into game theory, it is important to understand some basic concepts. Keeping these in mind at all times will further your process. Read the list below and their descriptions.
- Theories are concepts, not formulae. - Just because something specific happens when you press a particular button, doesn't mean that its tied directly to the button. Something is happening. Find out what it is. After all, buttons can be changed. For instance, the DPS formula changes according to the mechanics and circumstance. The concept that damage occurs over time, however, is fluid and remains constant. The formula is just a tool to illustrate the concept.
- Experience is verifiability. Test everything, just a little… - Never assume that a general theory applies to everything in the game. There are nuances for each class for everything. Even different types of damage can produce dramatically different results.
- Theories are meant to be built upon. - There is no theory that encompasses everything. Even your theory may be utilized by other theories. If your theory builds upon another theory, read, know and site the theory, so that others can understand your theory the way you do.
- Theories are debate arguments, not emotional arguments. - This means that every statement should be validated by data or another well accepted theory supported by (again) data. The mathematics involved are a means to explain that data in an efficient and easily understandable way. Don't attack a theorist with words that have strong emotional connotations. Attack the theory by providing strong, logical counter arguments.
- Theorists are people too. - Players come up with these theories because they are fun and neat. They have led to more fun and neat things. If a person's theory is lacking, tell them so, kindly. After all, they want others to use it. If they didn't, they wouldn't have published it.