Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

Design Flaws – Generic Crafting

Crafting is an activity that can go a long way towards fleshing out a virtual world, providing the players with a pastime that’s both fun and constructive, forming the cornerstone of a player-based economy.  Or… it can be more or less a waste of time.

In the real world, people craft for several reasons, among which are the desire to make art for its own sake, the desire to earn money by making and selling items that are valuable to others, and the desire to create items we’ll ourselves use.  Yet in many MMOs’ crafting systems, we’re given no opportunity at all to pursue the first two desires, and the third is given short shrift indeed.  Rather than creating items for artistic purposes, or crafting unique items that stand out, we’re often expected to grind out massive amounts of generic items that are of no value to anyone.  That’s not only tedious but entirely nonsensical.

Crafting should whenever possible allow for expression of the artisan impulse.  Let us customize the appearances of the items we make, to the point where one craftsman’s items can look entirely different from another’s.  Let us make art, by allowing freedom of design and decoration.  Yes, of course there are problems to overcome here… given enough freedom one can expect some people will depict foul or obscene things, while others will duplicate copyrighted materials.  We face this same possibility every time we hand a child a box of crayons and a pad of paper though… the risk is well worth the rewards.

Crafting should also whenever possible allow for customization of the mechanics of items being created.  Let us make armour and weapons with different bonuses, useful for different situations or specifications.  It’s wearying to be able only to make certain specific items, sometimes none of which are useful or applicable at a given level.  Yet we’re expected to grind through them, making dozens or hundreds of identical (and often useless) items until moving on to the next stage, where we’ll do the same thing.  This bears no resemblance to real life.

Insofar as we’re given freedom in crafting design and function, whole new realms of emergent gameplay arise… we’re able to create art and express ourselves, to manifest custom and special works that are unique and interesting.  That’s a whole game in itself then… and it’s one that a lot of players would happily immerse themselves in.  And as someone who enjoys crafting in games but is always, always disappointed by the limitations, I can only say, “This can’t happen soon enough.”

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Design Flaws – The Quest Log

I’ve been thinking about this issue rather a lot of late, and I’ve come to the realization that I dislike almost everything about the modern quest log.  Apostasy, I know, but it’s true.  World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, City of Heroes*, Age of Conan, WAR… they all have quest logs.  And in every case I feel that the basic concept of the quest log does a disservice to the game’s design.

* City of Heroes has a smaller quest log, usually holding only a few at a time, and so it suffers less from this malady than the others.

What’s to dislike?  You run around a quest hub, clicking on the NPCs that have punctuation floating over their heads (absolutely no immersion there, thanks), until your quest log is nice and full of quests you didn’t read the text for and don’t care about.  Then you run around the questing area until you’ve completed a batch of quests.  Return to the quest hub, find the NPCs with punctuation floating over their heads, and turn in the quests.  Rinse and repeat.

How mind-bogglingly dull this is, and how unlike how humans actually act.  Never mind the floating punctuation (immersion is a subject for another time)… this basic model for questing strips away whatever mythic elements might remain from gameplay, leaving us with nothing but mindless errands.  Gone is Isis’ journey to recover every one of Osiris’ severed body parts strewn up and down the Nile, gone Odysseus’ long trip home, gone Xuánzàng’s Journey to the West, gone Thor and Loki’s trip to recover Mjöllnir, and in their place, we have errand lists.  You know what?  I’ll take the mythic approach, thanks.

I differentiate between three types of activities in this regard: quests, subquests, and errands.  A quest is, properly speaking, a concept carried down from ages of myth and folklore, examples cited above.  Quests are serious endeavors, not to be undertaken lightly (in most cases anyhow).  Going to recover a major artifact, seeking to find and destroy a threat to the kingdom, traveling through peril and adversity to rescue the princess from the wicked enchantment that holds her in thrall… these are quests.

Subquests are a traditional part of questing; often the heroes find that in order to slay the terrible monster, they must first find the Sword of Terrible Monster Slaying.  And in order to recover that, they need the Wallet of Prosperity and the Sandals of Surefootedness.  The main goal remains paramount though in basically every story, myth, and folktale I’ve ever read; you don’t read about Frodo and Sam deciding that what they really needed was some more experience, heading out into the Plains of Gorgoroth to farm orcs for a few levels (the Ring can wait, whatever, it’s a static quest with no timer anyhow).

Errands are what most of our gaming quests come down to.  “Carry this envelope across this courtyard and hand it to that guy over there, yeah, in the blue hat, yes I know I can see him from here but I need your help, brave adventurer!”  There’s nothing wrong with errands; they provide a lot of minor and individually unimportant things to do and the keep the world running.  All of us do errands in our real lives, and we often do multitask these; if I head to the market to buy some fresh produce, I might also stop and pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery, and maybe a nice bottle of wine for my wife and I to enjoy.  Multitasking doesn’t diminish errands because they were always trivial in import.  There’s nothing to lose there.  Errands don’t make us feel very special though, and when we complete them we don’t get much of a rush for our accomplishment – again, because they’re just errands.

Quests, though, are, or rather should be more important.  Heroes don’t EVER multitask quests in story or myth; Jason didn’t set out to find the Golden Fleece and also the Golden Apples of the Hesperides (Hercules was on the Argo after all, could have saved him his 11th Labour).  So why are we expected to do so in games?  Often I find my characters have quest logs full of errands (which are all pretty innately meaningless) but also multiple quests at once.  I’m supposed to kill a bandit leader in this ruined fort (that sounds like a proper quest!)… but I have three quests like that at once, making each less meaningful.  I gather the quests up then look at my minimap and find the quest goals thereupon, then I merrily move from quest point to quest point killing everything that my quest log tells me to kill, collecting what my quest log tells me to collect.  How dreary and above all how unheroic.

In World of Warcraft there’s a popular addon called Quest Helper that keeps track of where all your quest goals are.  They’re clearly marked on your minimap and you can even see a path leading you from one goal to the next, so you don’t have to think about the process at all, and can just mindlessly complete that mess of ‘quests’.  Age of Conan took this one step further and built this functionality into the game, such that all quest goals appear by default on the minimap, and I gather WAR does as well.  Yes, we can turn these features off, or not install them in WoW’s case, but they’re symptomatic of a greater problem – how our modern games approach questing.  If we didn’t pick up twenty quests at once we wouldn’t need the minimaps to show us our goals.

These games all promise that we can be heroes; why then won’t they help us to feel heroic?  The modern approach to questing is nothing more than a list of minor errands, to be completed at any time the player wishes, with no pressure from the outside world, no sense of the importance of the quest, and no sense of accomplishment when the quest is done.  Quest logs are the antithesis of heroism.  And I, for one, would like more opportunities for heroism in my RPGs.  Isn’t that what they all advertise, after all?

Trusting the Source Material

OK, after that game-centric intro, I feel compelled to start right out by writing about a problem I’ve had with some movies.  Cause, frankly, it’s on my mind.  What, you expected me to write about games right off the bat?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

In the spirit of these two great men, or at least in the spirit of purloining two fine quotes by these great men, I’m going to write about trusting one’s source material, rather than about games.  So there!

So, context is good. My wife and I watched “Fantastic Four” (2005) last night back-to-back with the sequel, “4: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007).  Both movies featured some substantial changes from their source material, and some of the changes worked while others troubled me.  I consider such changes to by and large fall into three categories: 1) media-inspired changes, 2) trivial changes, and 3) rewrites.

The first category includes all changes that are mandated by the shift from one medium to another.  Sometimes what works very well in a book might not come across with the same success in film, and so on.  Alan Moore rather famously has claimed, for instance, that ‘Watchmen’ was designed as a graphic novel, and he does not believe that any film can capture the essence of that opus.  Fair enough; we’ll see.

Let’s look though at an easy example: when filming The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson et alia chose to omit the Scourging of the Shire; the events that transpired when the hobbits returned home only to discover that the war had preceded them home, and the Shire was occupied by hostile forces.  Many viewers felt that ‘Return of the King’ was already laden with too many false endings, and the audience would presumably be displeased with an additional half-hour of action after everything else was done.  I love that part of the series but understand and agree; for cinematic purposes the story is stronger without the Scouring.  The One Ring is destroyed, the King is crowned, the hobbits return home, and then the Fellowship ends at the Grey Havens.  That works.

The second category, trivial changes, is an easy one to identify and to spot.  Little changes are made to stories all the time when adapting them to new media.  To pick an example from “Fantastic Four”, the eponymous foursome gained their powers in the comics when a spaceship they were piloting hit a storm of cosmic rays.  In the movie, they were on a space station.  Meh, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.  This is a meaningless change and doesn’t trouble me; indeed the new version works as well as the old one.

The third category is the difficult one; sometimes it works quite well and sometimes it’s insultingly stupid.  Rewrites, in this context, are simply the scriptwriters’ way of saying they don’t trust the source material – and, to be fair, sometimes they’re right not to do so.  Sadly, more often they’re dead wrong. This is especially true in film adaptations of comic books.  Examples from the two movies we watched last night are all too easy to find.

Dr. Doom is one of the greatest and most iconic comic villains of all time; he’s a mastermind who threatens the entire world time and again.  What purpose is served by making him into a physical powerhouse who brawls with the Thing, instead of sticking with his original style (henchmen and robot duplicates and complicated multistep plans)?  I see no advantage, and it detracted from my enjoyment of the film.  Yes, it’s geeky, but it’s true.  I don’t mind changes for their own sake if they work at least as well, and if they’re trivial.  If you really want/need to make drastic changes to the source material though, I question the imperative to use that source material in the first place.  Going from a mastermind who thinks his way through problems (which justifies his position as the archenemy of Reed Richards) to a lightning-powered thug just stripped the character of all his gravitas and purpose.  He’s not interested in ruling the world anymore, just in hitting things with his newly-metallic fists and zapping them with energy bolts.  Yawn.

Another example from last night: the Silver Surfer.  In the film and unlike the comics, the surfboard is the source of his power; this fundamental alteration to the nature of the character was made for rather pointless plot reasons and frankly bothered me.  To wit: Doom’s natural reaction when seeing the Surfer was to make a plan to steal the Surfer’s power (because as we all know, ultimate power has always been Doom’s self-proclaimed destiny).  So, ok, he needs a way to steal the Surfer’s power.  The clumsy method in which this was done was to have Reed separate the Surfer from his board, while Doom laid plans to steal the board for himself later.  The board was a beacon and summoned Galactus – which raises several questions, e.g. ‘When does Galactus know the Surfer has found a suitable planet?’  If the Surfer has to manually send notification, presumably coordinates could be sent at the same time, so the beacon isn’t needed.

A much more elegant and respectful treatment would have been to leave the Surfer as-is from the comics.  The surfboard is a tool used to travel in space, nothing more.  Reed devises a device to steal the Surfer’s powers, and Doom hacks the plan and inserts his own machinery into Reed’s device.  When Reed steals the power, it is fed directly to Doom.  Since the Surfer has already summoned Galactus, the clock is ticking… forcing Reed to devise a way to steal the powers back from Doom.  Johnny still gets to do the Super-Skrull impersonation (perhaps to get the power-stealing device close enough, and for long enough).  The rest of the story proceeds as written.

I acknowledge that it’s a trivial change, but it’s just grating.  The story doesn’t NEED to make the board the source of power; it took me maybe 10 seconds to come up with the workaround above.  The story moreover doesn’t benefit from the change; it doesn’t make the character more interesting or easier to relate to, doesn’t make his plight (as herald of a universal evil working against his will) more poignant, doesn’t illuminate anything or add complexity.  It’s just a change in the basic nature of the character for no purpose I can see except that the writers didn’t really have respect for the source material.

I see these movies and I think to myself, “What were they thinking?”  There’s a property that’s deemed valuable enough to make a film out of it.  It’s valuable… why exactly?  Presumably because a) it was well-created in the first place and b) it has fans who like the material as is.  Nolan’s Batman isn’t precisely the same as the comics version, but it’s clearly a respectful rendition that’s firmly based in the spirit of the comics; and look how that’s paid off.  Consistent?  Yes, but not foolishly so; productively so.  No hobgoblins here, Mr. Emerson.

Beginnings

“Dixitque Foolsage, ‘Fiat blog!’ Et facta est blog.”

Well, that’s a suitably pretentious and self-conscious way to start.  I’m not sure if I’m satisfied yet though.  Perhaps something a bit more in media res?  Ok, ok, second try.

“I’ve been reading blogs for years now, some more assiduously than others; so it was reasonable enough for me to agree when my wife gently pressed the carving knife to my throat and sweetly suggested I consider starting my own blog.”

Yes, I think that’s captured more of the flavour I was going for.

This’ll be a place for me to ramble about my interests.  I’ll talk about games and game theory, and game design, and game playing, and, well, things involving how games are made and enjoyed in general.  I’ll also from time to time share thoughts on media I’ve consumed (books, films, TV shows, webcomics, et alia) as well as news in general that interests me.  There’s a good chance of some digressions on topics like language/linguistics, sociology, and ethics.

On the one hand, I recognize that most popular blogs remain fairly focussed.  On the other hand, my interests are fairly diverse and often dovetail into each other, so in the interests of experimentation, I’ll mash everything together.  We’ll see how it works.