Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Second Star to the Right, and Straight on Till Morning

Richard Bartle gave a talk at the IMGDC about different approaches to games wherein he compares games to Dorothy (of Oz fame), Alice (of Wonderland fame), and Wendy (of Neverland fame).  As his works are wont to do, this got me to thinking… and as is not uncommon, I found myself agreeing with much of what Bartle said, though not all of it.

To summarize briefly, Bartle suggests that Dorothy-style games are about achievement; Alice-style games are all about exploration and discovery, and Wendy-style games are about socializing and narrative flow.  Or perhaps it’s more that Dorothy-style games have clear direction (designer-created content), Alice-style games are open and directionless (sandbox with heavy user-generated content), and Wendy-style games are explicitly about user-created content.

Bartle then suggests that Wendy-style games don’t really mesh with Dorothy-style and Alice-style, which is an idea I’ll return to in a bit.  He proposes that WoW is one Dorothy-style game (leveling) followed by another nested Dorothy-style game (raiding), which strikes me as quite accurate.  He then goes on to suggest that games would be well-served to begin Dorothy-style and evolve into Alice-style; I think this is intriguing, but propose that there’s room for Wendy in there as well.

Imagine, if you will, a game that starts out similarly to today’s Diku model – the player is introduced to the skill or level system and shown one basic primary path through the game, featuring explicit success conditions (more levels and loot are better) and a simple path to those success conditions (kill things, do quests).  Within a short time, the player is introduced to some more sophisticated concepts; characters can influence the politics and economics of the world through direct actions.  Gaining loot and levels on the Dorothy-line can assist one in this Alice-line, but the success conditions are different and the paths diverge.  As the player grows more experienced and progresses along the Alice-lines OR Dorothy-line, more paths open up, more options become available and the game becomes less and less linear – players now create their own success conditions in addition to following the simple conditions of the Dorothy-line.  Perhaps some players want to become real estate magnates, while others want to run popular taverns, and others want to become esteemed and influential politicians.  With enough progress down BOTH the Dorothy-line and Alice-lines, a third option becomes available; characters with enough wealth, power, and influence can create content of their own.

A young man named Robert sets out to win his fortune… to start with he performs errands for the people of his village, perhaps engaging in diplomacy to make things better for his neighbors.  After some time he’s become a fairly skilled diplomat and decides to become and alderman, serving his community through planning and diplomatic interactions with neighboring communities.  As his influence grows, Robert is able to establish trade routes with other towns, and can directly contribute to the economic welfare of his home town.  Eventually Robert amasses some wealth and power and gets permission to expand the town, building some businesses, running some himself and hiring people to manage others.  In time the town grows to a prosperous city, and Robert owns or controls rather a lot of it.  Robert arranges for his town to merge with several nearby ones, over the course of a long career, and in time the city of Robertsville is known far and wide as an economic power to be reckoned with.

That’s an extreme example, since of course not everyone would want to or be able to succeed according to those conditions… but it demonstrates how Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy can coexist peacefully, and how a game can (and perhaps should) allow gradual progress from one style of game to another.  Nesting Dorothy-lines inside Dorothy-lines worked for EQ and WoW, but the model is tired and old, and suffers greatly from predictability and shallowness of content.  Alice and Wendy games don’t have that problem, but as Bartle correctly noted, they’re unforgiving to newbies, so it’s wise to start out with some clear direction.  Follow the Yellow Brick Road past Oz and you’ll find a Wonderland.  Explore there enough and you can start to make your own Neverland inside Wonderland.

Shall We Play a Game?

Well, I can’t say I’m surprised it’s an emerging field, but I’ll admit I didn’t know how far things have already come on the cyberwar frontier.  Tron might not be as futuristic as we think, but thankfully Snow Crash still is.

Appeal to Authority

Well, this morning’s blog reading has been interestingly recursive for me.  Cuppycake tossed a pebble in a pond and the ripples have been more or less predictable – bloggers have been discussing the merits of blogging about game design.

I’m going to toss in my tuppence here.  Cuppy refined her original post by saying, “design bloggers….you’re all full of shit, and relevant people in the industry making kick ass content aren’t reading a word of what you say (and if they are, they’re laughing).”  This saddened me because I can’t help but think less of her for her elitist attitude, and moreso for the classic appeal to authority fallacy.  We should only listen to what professionals say, because they’re professionals!  Nonprofessionals have nothing to contribute!

The fact that someone works as a game designer doesn’t mean they’re good at it, or every game would be devoid of design flaws.  Similarly, the fact that someone doesn’t work as a game designer doesn’t mean they’re not good at it, which I had thought until this morning was blindingly obvious but I gather isn’t.  Game design is a multifaceted art, and a broad range of skills in other fields can contribute to success at game design.  Game design can be influenced by psychology, sociology, economics, history, linguistics, math, physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, and countless other fields; by extension, people with interest or skill in those fields can contribute to the field of game design.  Moreover, the video games industry is notorious for paying poorly and offering insane working hours, which simply doesn’t compare favorably to other industries; many of us are influenced by such meta-concerns despite our love of and potential skill at game design.  Then, too, there are doubtless some very skilled people out there who want to break into game design but haven’t yet… they’re trying though, and perhaps someday they’ll succeed.  Should we ignore or marginalize their input now since their foot isn’t in the door?

There’s also the fact that game design, as a field, includes more than just computer game design.  I’ve never launched a commercial computer game (only done CRPG design for hobby ventures and one failed startup) but I have coauthored game supplements in print.  Does the lack of industry experience in one aspect of game design make my input meaningless?  I gather that CRPGs sprung wholly formed (a modern Athena) from the minds of Raph Koster and Richard Bartle… and weren’t based on anything existing in other areas of game design.  This came as a surprise to me frankly; I had always labored under the misconception that CRPGs were based heavily on the design of RPGs, which in turn derived from wargames and other games.  I guess it simplifies things to know I can stop studying other aspects of game design since they don’t apply to CRPGs. 😉

OK, sorry, heavy sarcasm.  It’s a Monday and I’m dragging (sick all weekend).  I’ll try to tone it back a bit.

The insular approach Cuppy seems to favor is self-limiting; if people working in game design only listen to other people who are working in game design, then they tend to create a system of shared expectations and limitations that can become quite a rut (witness everyone’s attempts to clone WoW).  Cross-fertilization is so obviously desirable in this of all fields that I’m puzzled how someone can claim with a straight face that hoi polloi like yours truly are ignored or at best mocked for our tawdry dilletantism.  Even if 90% of what game design blogs discuss is nonsense, reading things you don’t agree with can spur insights and tangents that are of value.  Then, too, there’s that other 10%, which I think it unwise to ignore.  

I ~loved~ “Designing Virtual Worlds” by Richard Bartle, but I didn’t agree with all of it.  I still found it valuable though, even when I disagreed, because it led me to some interesting thoughts about how and why I disagreed.  I re-read it every few years still, visiting it with a fresh perspective.  I still don’t agree on some points, despite Mr. Bartle’s impeccable resume and indisputable authority.  Go figure.

But then, surely Galileo was wasting his time doing that pointless research, since the Church already had all the answers? 😉

Supply and Demand

This was inspired by Ysharros’ recent post about crafting.

I find it interesting that auction houses in MMOs mostly still adhere to the eBay model, which is entirely supply-driven, when there’s a clear argument for a demand-driven model as well.  That is to say, if you have something you want to sell (a supply of something), you can post it for sale, generally for a limited time, and generally there’s a posting fee involved.  But if there’s something you want to buy (a demand for something), and nobody has put it up for sale… you’re out of luck.  This is obviously a bit silly.

I always get involved in economics in MMOs, and I’ve quite often found myself perplexed by the supply-only model.  That’s not the only approach in existence though – CoX for instance has both supply and demand auctions.  In fact, a while ago when I went back to CoX to try out the CoV content, I hit the auction house lottery jackpot… I put something up for auction (supply) and found to my delight that someone else had previously posted a demand for that item for a fairly ridiculous sum of money (ridiculous to me anyhow). As it turned out, the item was of considerable rarity, but I had no idea of that when I put it up for sale. I made a lot more money there than I was asking for.

There’s a strong argument in favor of full transparency for demand postings – that is to say, every demand that’s posted should be searchable and completely visible to the public.  If e.g. I know that someone has offered outrageous sums of money for something, then I might reasonably seek to acquire or create the item myself, so I could sell it for said outrageous sums.  CoX’s auction house has an opaque demand system… so I, as a seller, can’t see exactly what people are offering for various items; instead, I can only see what the last 3 of those items have sold for, and I have to guess what a good price is.  This leads to an interesting but unnecessary and unfulfilling metagame where people try to figure out how much to sell things for.  A more fulfilling and natural system would allow us to see what the actual demand is, so selling prices can meet the demand.  This becomes fairly fundamental when selling crafted items… since I, as a crafter, would like to make the items I know are more valuable to my local economy, and spend less time creating things that have little value.  As a consumer, having demand postings means I can seek the items I desire more readily, instead of having to check back at the auction house regularly to see if someone put it up for auction.

Happy Day, Earth!

Incoming signal…

In honor of your planet’s anniversary today, I shall make a special endeavor to show regard for Earth things.  I will dedicate several seconds each to appreciating water buffalo, fire hydrants, Escherichia coli, and shoelace aglets, and will listen to Earth sounds while thinking these appreciative thoughts.  There will also be Earth cake.

I have been informed that this is not in fact your planet’s anniversary, but is instead a celebration of recent invention, intended to draw attention to the conservation movement and to things of Earth not created by humans.  I will correspondingly withdraw my appreciation of fire hydrants and shoelace aglets.  The Earth cake will remain part of the celebration.

Signal ends.

How Can Quests Be More Interesting?

I was just reading a post at Pearls of Unwisdom about The State of MMORPG Questing and it got me to thinking.  I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the quest log – the basic concept of having many minor errands to do at once – but on a more fundamental level, what’s needed to make an individual quest interesting?  How, in short, do we get players to care about the quest’s plot, and make quests more fun and memorable?

Some of this touches on themes I’ve written about before, naturally… 

1) Character-driven quests –  Let me as the player decide what I want to do and then find quests that serve MY goals.  I’m tired of doing whatever the lazy NPCs tell me to do.  Let them kill their own damned rats.  If I choose the basis of my quest I’m a lot more likely to care about it than I am with generic static quests.

2) Procedurally generated quests instead of static ones – If quests were created procedurally, then players wouldn’t know in advance what’s to come, which is itself going to contribute to players paying more attention.  Spoilers can ruin all the surprises, and many gamers will seek the most efficient way to obtain EXP and loot – this means going to websites and looking up all the details in advance.  This wouldn’t be possible with procedurally generated content.

3) An undetermined outcome –  Give us the chance to actually ~fail~ at quests, and not just try them again and again until we succeed.  This is deeply problematic with static content, but not at all problematic with procedurally generated content.

4) One quest at a time – Having a quest log full of quests means each individual quest is unimportant overall.  If we’re only doing one quest at a time then we’ll care more about what that quest actually entails.

Buff me dammit! Heal pls.

I played EQ2 last night for a very brief period and hit level 13, which earned my Fury the beloved and dreaded spell Spirit of the Wolf.  The reasons it’s beloved and dreaded harken back to oldschool EQ, and got me to thinking about the culture of entitlement that prevails today, and how game design can support or disempower it.

In EQ, the spell Spirit of the Wolf (SoW) was a speed buff that could be cast on any player, available to Druids, Rangers, and Shamans (I think maybe some other classes as well later on).  In EQ2, the spell can only be cast on group members.  What’s the difference?  I have grim memories of people sitting around in EQ spamming chat channels with requests and demands that someone cast SoW on them.  Not only were some people outright rude in their imperious demands, they were quite willing to sit around for half an hour or longer spamming demands or sending rude pushy tells to utter strangers (e.g. “SoW me!” “Need SoW now!”).  So they’d sit there for half an hour or more hoping for someone to increase their speed by, say, 40%… which might save them as much as 10 minutes on their trip.  It made no sense objectively, and it was a serious hassle for the poor characters who could cast SoW.  Not me, I played a Bard – my speed only worked on my group, and I neither asked for nor was asked for speed buffs.  Anyhow.

My Discipline Priest in WoW had some pretty spiffy buffs he could cast on other players, as did my Druid.  I enjoyed being able to help other players out, and would often sit in Orgrimmar casting buffs on every character who went past.  It gave me a nice opportunity for some altruistic behaviour, which I appreciated.

So there’s the tradeoff: on the one hand, being able to cast buffs on strangers allows altruism, which is nice from a social viewpoint.  On the other hand, it can lead to feelings of entitlement and rude demands, which is not so socially desirable.  There’s also the concern that some powerful buffs can make lowbie content trivially easy, which from a design standpoint isn’t ever a good thing.  If newbies get a lucky buff and blast through some content, then the buff runs out… they’ll find the difficulty ramps up very quickly, and they won’t necessarily have acquired the skills needed for their level.  Then, too, in blowing through that content they’ve consumed it faster than the designers intended, which is a serious problem if all content is static and created by developers.  It’s obviously far less of a problem with player-created content or even moreso dynamic content.

Healing is similar but has different pros and cons than buffs.  Allowing characters to heal strangers also allows for altruistic behaviour, which remains desirable.  Because heals are reactive and not proactive, it’s very rare for anyone to sit around demanding heals – this would only happen in a game with a lot of downtime between fights, and those are becoming more and more rare (thankfully – because frankly it’s boring to sit around waiting).  There remains a risk that having a higher-level healer “on tap” can trivialize content, but then if someone is willing to do that for you, is it really a problem?  It requires the active participation of that other player to heal the lower-level character, rather than casting a passive buff which might need refreshing every e.g. half an hour.

No 2 Games are Created EQual.

I’ve been playing EQ2 for four days now, when time allows.  Some further thoughts have arisen, as they are wont to do…

The crafting is quite engaging.  As it turns out, my character had a book explaining how to craft all along, but I didn’t initially know the difference between examining a book and reading it.  D’oh!  The crafting hall in Kelethin walks one through all the steps involved and it’s pretty easy to pick up.  I didn’t realize for a while though that the reactive skills could be used at any time… I thought they were only used in reaction to events.

For anyone unfamiliar, in EQ2 crafting is active, not passive; you don’t go AFK and leave your character to process a massive stack of trivial crafting jobs.  Instead each item crafted requires some attention, but the experience reward is commensurately higher.  The reactive skills are an interesting mix… there are 6 to choose from at any given time.  The player can increase progress, increase the chances of success, or make tradeoffs between progress and success.  After a bit of muddling around I found it was fairly easy to discover the tactics that optimize my chances of rapid success; so it’s not so complicated that one can’t solve how to do it within a few tries, but it’s complicated enough that from one crafting trial to the next the actual buttons one hits will differ (though the general tactic remains the same).  That’s good – it reduces tedium and keeps the player involved.

As one crafts, a series of events occurs every now and then – flaws appear in the crafted item which need to be fixed using the same reactive skills mentioned above.  It’s trivially easy to just hit one of the two buttons with the same icon as the problem that arose; the only time I failed was when I was busy punching buttons for my general tactics as above and didn’t notice the flaw in time, and thus hit the wrong button to resolve the flaw.  Even those failures aren’t catastrophic – they just decrease the overall chance of success by a little bit.

Characters start out as crafting generalists, able to craft anything at all at a low level.  As they gain more experience, characters choose a field of study to specialize in, then later choose a subspecialty.  That means all characters can make any simple item, or any journeyman item in their specialty, or anything up to their skill level in their subspecialty.  A lot of items seem to require rare components, so the cheaper gear will be more common than the nicer stuff overall.  That’s a decent economic balance.

Moving on from crafting, I got my Dirge to 16th level and found I was having some trouble fighting linked spawns… I could kill one monster my level or a bit higher, but when I had to fight 3 monsters my level it was hit and miss.  Actually it was often hit and pray and flee, or hit and die.  As it turns out, the stealth I was raving about earlier is ineffective against foes above one’s level, or even foes at one’s level once one gets into the teens.  The good news is that the red line around the mob’s names does in fact exist, so one can still tell visually which foes will see through the stealth.  I found fleeing usually works pretty well though; mobs don’t follow one very far and with a bit of speed and luck one can escape almost anything.

After a bit of deliberation I started a second character, this one a Froglok Fury.  I picked the Froglok because I liked the idea of being able to breath underwater indefinitely.  The Fury is an offensive druid, with DoTs and some pretty decent heals.  What a difference!  I found it trivially simple to fight a single monster a bit over my level, or 2 or 3 monsters my level.  I routinely fought 4 or 5 monsters a bit under my level, pulling them one after another, slapping DoTs on them all, healing myself as they all slowly died around me.  The Fury was a great fit for my playstyle… I’m ok with dealing a bit less damage, but being able to deal it to multiple targets, and having the fights take a bit longer in exchange for being able to heal myself.

I was less enchanted with the Queen’s Colony (the newbie zone for Qeynos) though.  The content was a bit sparse and I quickly found myself doing nothing but green quests, then grey quests, and there was no vector quest to lead me to another area (Qeynos proper) at the appropriate time.  Yuck.  The flow was much better in the Faydark.

Then I got the froggy to level 9 and discovered that the Fury class has a water breathing buff spell that lasts 15 minutes.  Well, crap.  As it turns out there was no reason to pick the froggy.  So I made another Fae character, because I really liked the free slow fall and the movement speed buffs they get, and preferred the Faydark to Qeynos.  So my new Fae Fury is now level 12 and I’m quite enjoying him.

Scenes from a Rearview Mirror

At a stop light on my commute this morning, a pristine SUV pulls up behind me.  The driver is a beautiful woman in her early 40s; aristocratic, high cheekbones, hair pulled up and knotted atop her head, wearing overlarge sunglasses.  Next to her sits a boy of perhaps 16, a mop of dark unruly hair tumbling down over his ears, his expression filled with tightly controlled anger.  The driver’s head is cocked over and down, as if viewing the radio, but it’s clear from her body language she’s trying to be open to him speaking to her, without pressing him – she watches him from the corner of her eye.  After a while, she straightens her head, her neck long and birdlike, her movements delicate, her expression carefully neutral.  The boy doesn’t move at all, his eyes fixed straight ahead, his stony silence radiating disapproval.  She looks over at him for a few seconds, her expression unchanging, then looks straight again.  Neither of them speaks.

I watch them and wonder what the context is.  Did he do something to earn punishment he feels is undeserved?  She clearly wants him to open up to her; she seeks an end to the detente.  Did he learn of some indiscretion of hers?

The light changes and I drive off.

ForEver Questing

Well, I tried EQ2 last night, and found I enjoyed myself a fair bit.  I made a Fae Dirge and decided to let my inner powerleveler shine for a night; with a bit of muddling around to learn the controls and iron out the kinks, and a lot of time spent running around looking for quest locations, I somehow managed to vastly exceed my own expectations and get the little guy to level 11.  Yeah, I know.

So how was the experience?  Really fast… unlike Ysharros, who leveled every time she sneezed, I seemed to level every time I blinked.  But how was the experience of playing the game?  I guess it was more or less as I expected… everything felt very familiar to me, mechanically speaking, but I liked the feel of the game, the responsiveness of my character, the look of the Greater Feydark (though dark, it was nice… but I learned quickly not to leave my infrared sight on, or it became really hard to navigate), and the voicework.  Actually, the voicework was pretty great, which is nice… the soundtrack was also quite pleasant, and when I played for a short bit without headphones on to test my reaction, I found myself dearly missing the audio.  So that’s a good sign.  My laptop’s getting a bit agèd these days (time to replace it, will do soon), so I had the video settings pretty low, which is a shame.  I suspect the game is fairly pretty.

I’m a veteran MMO player and enough of EQ2 is your basic Diku that I had a good idea what to do, but I’ll note that the game doesn’t do a fabulous job explaining everything that’s going on.  There are NPCs scattered around who will walk you through various game mechanics, but I think a solid, short tutorial would go a long way towards smoothing out the newbie experience.  I always thought CoX did a great job there, explaining powers and the GUI and all the basic game mechanics without being too oppressive.  LotRO’s intro is a good tutorial as well, for that matter.

The craft materials gathering was fun and easy, once I figured out that I could just left-click instead of right-clicking and navigating down the menu.  Again though, I wasn’t sure what I could do with all the stuff I gathered… obviously it’s used in crafting of some sort, but which craft uses which materials?  I was also a little surprised to see that I wasn’t able to sell the crafting materials that I gathered to a merchant.  I presume I can sell them to other players via the broker, but not in the trial.  So I have a bank full of stuff of dubious purpose and (currently) negligible value.  I do intend to try the crafting, but again, the game hasn’t really helped me know what to do there or where to go.  By patiently poking around the map of Kelethin I found several NPCs who teach various crafts, and I’ll visit them next time I play.

The combat was fun and fast.  By level 11 I had a lot of different things to do in combat, including stunning my foes and running around them to deliver a quick backstab – so it felt very active, not a sit-in-one-place-and-autoattack sort of game.  I liked that the hostile foes had a red line around their names, too… that’s a simple visual indicator that works well.  I used my character’s stealth rather a lot, and found myself a little disappointed that the red hostile indicator disappeared when I was stealthed… meaning if I approached a group of foes while stealthed, I couldn’t tell if they were hostile or not without uncloaking, which clearly can be dangerous.  I think the UI could be improved in this regard; a second visual indicator could be added which indicates that the target ~would~ be hostile but can’t currently see you.

Speaking of stealth, I was surprised to find that my stealth was 100% effective against everything I came across.  That certainly made travel easier, and kind of trivialized the quests to go deep into various caves, past multiple hostile foes, to kill a boss deep inside.  I’m not sure how I feel about the stealth really.  It surely is convenient, I’ll say that much. Between the stealth and the high DPS of the class, I found the Dirge to be powerful and fairly easy.

The quests were of the usual sort; nothing really stood out there as being especially interesting or well-done.  I’m jaded because I’ve done probably tens of thousands of quests in my lifetime, and the usual “kill X”, “gather X”, “go talk to X” are the staples of every MMO.  I will say that LotRO has an edge here since the Shire offers a host of interesting and different quests (e.g. deliver mail or pies, or the fabulous chicken quests); that’s just one area though, and the rest of that game has quests that are typical of the genre (i.e. forgettable).  Anyhow, the quests in EQ2 were neither good nor bad, just typical.  They sufficed.  Were it not for the better gear available thereby, I’d probably spend more time just running around killing things, which in fact I did a fair amount last night.  Stealth surely is nice for exploring.

The UI was basically what I expected, though I noticed that a few elements aren’t explained with mouseover tooltips.  That’s an odd omission.  I know from other games that the second bar beneath my EXP bar is the rested experience, but I didn’t have a tooltip explaining that, nor telling me how exactly it works.  There’s also a series of small rectangles laid out in a broken line beneath my health and power meter in the upper left; I gather it has something to do with buffs but still don’t know what it’s telling me or why.  That’s a failure of design.

Overall, the game was fun, and I liked the world and the class.  I’ll keep playing through the trial, and probably make another character or three to test out the other mechanics and settings.  Right now it seems likely that I’ll subscribe.