Monday, October 30, 2006

Accepting Setbacks

In his last blog (, Chas does something I like to do, which is to try to pull lessons from something not directly game-related and apply it to games. In this case, he was looking at the ideas of adventure in the great movie Secondhand Lions. One of points Chas touches on is when Hub says "I've won and lost a dozen fortunes" with a sense of pride.

I really like the idea of players have ups and downs. But as Chas points out, in the typical item-centric MMO, "Losing stuff is bad. Losing valuable stuff is grounds for quitting."

Perhaps the reason that most MMO players won't stomach losing much of their fortune, gear, skills, and such is just because they've been trained to think of such games as wholly progressive (your character should always be moving forward, never back).

Lately, I've been really enjoying the RTS game Battle For Middle Earth 2. I always play the "War of the Ring" mode, which is similar to the Risk boardgame in some respects. It's not uncommon to lose territories and have to fight to win them back. Sometimes this means I'm pushed to the brink of utter defeat (losing the war, not just the battle) before I push back and win it all. Other times, I'm both winning and losing at the same time; as I'm gaining territories over here, my opponent is on the other side and taking my territories over there.

So here we see two types of player loss: whole and partial.

The death penalties of MMOs are usually (in the ones I played) just a hiatus in progression. The original Everquest allowed players to actually lose levels, and the skills associated with those levels. It also allowed the loss of attributes, through diseases and curses, until a cure could be acquired by the player (significantly, cures were readily available most of the time, so there wasn't a great threat of being weakened for long). It did not, however, allow the loss of items. Other MMOs I've played allowed items to become broken or unusable after a particular length of time, but the item decay was slow enough that item loss was rare or more valuable items were immune from decay.

I think the keys to convincing players to accept losses are hope and fun. Hope is the easier of the two. The player must have hope of either reacquiring the object lost or acquiring another object of similar value. The other ingredient, keeping the gameplay fun despite the loss, is more difficult, largely because of an inherent importance of optimization in current MMO models. In the player's eyes, it's not the character's circumstances which have been reduced; it's the character. If the player's character is merely a medium of power, then the loss of power is a loss of identity. The character is diminished, rather than the same character having to approach challenges in a different way.

Think about running out of ammo for your favorite gun in Halo, Goldeneye or some other first-person shooter. You probably cursed your luck and thought about how much more difficult the gameplay was going to be without that weapon. Maybe you were even asking yourself how long you'd have to fight with an inferior weapon before regaining your prized instrument of destruction. But you didn't turn off the console. Why? Because the weapon was just something your character was was not representative of your character. Bond loves his PP7, but he's still James Bond without it. The Master Chief is equally the Master Chief with an assault rifle, pistol or needler.

What defines these characters in terms of core gameplay? The ability to kill the enemies in their path. Whether using a rifle or needler, the Master Chief can still kill Covenant aliens. Whether using a PP7 or grenade launcher, Bond can still kill Soviets.

But what happens when an MMO player's avatar loses his Grand Sword of Uberness or his Wrath of God lightning spell? He's no longer able to face the same enemies. He must fall back to less difficult enemies; he must fall back to a lesser level of gameplay.

The key to making loss acceptable in a power-oriented game is to ensure the player can accomplish core gameplay goals despite setbacks.

In a multi-dimensional game, the player can continue to enjoy the game by progressing in one way while regressing in another. Partial losses are possible only in a game with multiple, directly-interactive player goals. In BfME:2's "War of the Ring" mode, I have the goal of conquering new territories and the additional goal of protecting old territories. Thus, I'm able to experience the partial defeat of losing old territories while experiencing the partial victory of winning new territories, each as a subset of a unified gameplay experience.

In an MMO game with only the core gameplay goal of progressing to new objects (items, levels, enemies, etc), any loss is ultimately the same loss, a barrier to one path of progression. Many MMOs seek to provide an alternative to combat through artisanship or diplomacy (which are still, in a sense, presented as forms of combat, rather than creative or maneuvering [mental or physical] challenges), but these avenues of gameplay are typically too separate from the combat segment of the game to feel like different parts of the same gameplay experience. The artisan and combatant are essentially two characters, though topically one, rather than extensions of the same character.

Perhaps I'll come back to this to suggest paths for improvement, but I need to hop on other things for now. Feel free to pick up where I left off though. =)

Sunday, October 29, 2006


This might be a dangerous precedent for me. But since I've been so neglectful of my site of late and since this is related to something on another gaming blog (Raph's), I'm going to write about something not directly game-related. So...

Poetry: what is it?

Poetry must have at least one pattern which distinguishes it from prose. Typical patterns are meter, rhyme, rhythm, or divisions of line which reflect semantic movements. Sorry, but simply cutting your prose into lines of roughly equal length does not make it poetry, nor does speaking of something transcendental or using a lot of imagery.

"But it's beautiful, alluring language." Yeah, and prose can be that too.
"But it looks like poetry." Yeah, but it's an impostor. The best way to detect poetry is to speak it aloud.

Why? Well, let's look beyond our own convoluted culture and back to poetry's history. Through the vast majority of human history, going back thousands of years, poetry was expected to have patterns. Aside from playing with the music in and of language, those patterns aid memorization. They're mnemonics. Most of those really long poems you were probably exposed to in school were made up entirely in someone's head (or multiple heads) and recited orally before eventually making their way into print. Through all this time, poetry was intended to be spoken and heard, not read. It is only with the availability of printing and better writing materials that it became common for people to imagine poetry without any such pattern(s), because patterns were no longer needed for memory.

Poetry without pattern is only imagined. It's an illusion. It doesn't really exist. Such a mirage has become increasingly the dominant preference among university professors and literati over the past four centuries, but it is still just a mirage. I've taken numerous university courses concerning poetry to a greater or lesser extent, and the only one of my professors (a Creative Writing -Poetry class) who dared address the question "what is poetry" directly could only retreat to the bland assertion that poetry defies definition. The truth is that he was willfully clinging to a modernist view which can only say the sky is blue while staring at the ground.

Poetry has definition, and it's rooted in patterns. Note that this isn't just an easy way to clearly separate the categories of poetry and prose. Some prose is very poetic, like the "I have a dream..." speech of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which uses repetition of that phrase to great effect and employs many other musical patterns, including the intonation of its delivery. But, once again, we see memorization and oration playing a role...public addresses tend to be more poetic than other prose.

The point of defining poetry is not to keep it safeguarded from "corruption" by prose, or vice versa. It is not necessary to quarrantine the two; on the contrary, blending has presented us with some of the finest literature and rhetoric available; and some degree of blending is perhaps unavoidable. Personally, I believe Western cultures have long done themselves a disservice by obsessive separation of categories.

The reason we define things is to better understand them. You appreciate better what things are by learning what they are not. Absorbing prose as if it were poetry is to miss the beauty particular to poetry, the beauty of patterns. It's the same tragedy as mistaking noise for music, scribbles for art, or chaos for design. In the modern quest to dissociate objects from definite forms, many have chosen to devour an illusion which will ultimately leave them hungry and unnourished.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Inspired Gameplay

Sometimes graphics, characters and rules feed the player a specific story and environment, but they can also lead the player to a story and environment of his or her own creation. Gameplay can be inspired, rather than doled; from the player, rather than the developer.

If you tell an artist, a poet or a composer simply "make something", you'll probably get a blank stare or worried expression. I've been writing and composing for nearly 15 years now, and every year I have a stronger appreciation for inspiration. Everything we do in life is at its most enjoyable and most fruitful when we allow ourselves to be inspired.

My Asian Philosophy professor, Daniel Coyle, and I had many interesting discussions trying to pin down the Chinese concept of "wu-wei", which I've come to define as roughly "inspired action". Michael Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steven Spielberg...these people, some of the best in their fields, are known for inspired action. When Jordan went for a slam dunk or Hendrix soloed (swap him with Stevie Ray Vaughn or Louis Armstrong if you prefer), their actions seemed effortless and natural. When they were "in the zone", they didn't have to work at their actions anymore; they just played.

Everyone's familiar with the feeling of being "in the zone". It usually occurs only after warming up a while. That state of production doesn't have to accidental.

Inspiration isn't the sort of thing one can always call up at will, but it is possible to consciously create an environment which welcomes and attracts inspiration. The two components of inspired action are ability and peace.

  • Ability. A combination of innate and trained ability prepares one for inspiration. What good is an idea without the language and energy to adequately express/fulfill it? We are not all created equal in regards to aptitudes, but even the most innately gifted persons never cease to benefit from training, honing and expanding their abilities.
  • Peace. Countless obstructions can hinder one's capacity to accept inspiration. What good is an idea without the openness to accept it and the focus to truly know it? One usually gets in the zone only after warming up a while because warm-ups help us to ignore distractions and bring ourselves into harmony with our environment.


Of course, learning how to open one's self to inspiration is greatly beneficial to developers, but I think we should try to take it further. Developers can inspire the player, creating the gameplay experience indirectly by fashioning an environment in which players are likely to build their own experiences.

To do this, the developer must attend to encouragement of ability and peace, in addition to the source of inspiration. User interface, story pacing and combat pacing all play a role in the creation of peace. Gradual elevation in challenges and opportunities encourage the honing and development of ability. Too often, challenge is relativized (a conflict between a level 3 player and a level 3 opponent is equally difficult as between a level 10 player and level 10 opponent). Too often, the user interface is negotiable but not fluid and harmonizing (if the player has to try to remember which key or screen icon to press for a certain action, then movement toward "the zone" has been disrupted).

As for the actual sources of inspiration, they can be visual, audial, opportunities for action or many other things. As the real world proves, inspiration can come from just about anything, from a sunset to a machine to a paperclip. The trick is in asking of every object (visual or otherwise) in your game: What role does it play necessarily? What peripheral roles might it play?

For example, a tree might be one of many members creating the object of a forest, but it might also be a creature's home; a broken branch may tell the tale of a storm; a carved heart may tell the tale of lovers; dying leaves may speak of a dying land. A blacksmith might be just a blacksmith, but he might also have the look of one of those rebels you've been hearing about; a scar over his eye but a smile on his lips may send you searching for his history; the tune he often hums may be from a time when the culture was quite different, a time to which he is himself oblivious; his hammer may bare the trademark of a smithy of another town.

All of these are possibilities for little adventures which needn't be fleshed out fully by the developers...adventures which the players themselves have a hand in creating. There are countless opportunities for games to host far more fun than they directly provide.

Monday, October 16, 2006


To whoever's actually interested in this little amateur site, sorry for the long hiatus. Between schoolwork coming to a climax and a death in the family, I've been more than a little busy. Hopefully, I'll be able to start posting again next week sometime.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I haven't had much time this week, but here's some old thoughts on tethering creatures in MMOs.

I like trains (even when I hate them ), and like that realization that I only thought I lost my pursuer. But I'd like to see more involved, in regards to tethering, than I've seen in past games.

  • Distance. The obvious condition. No creature should chase the player around the whole world, and creatures should have varying distances each is willing to go.
  • Focus. Some creatures should be more distractable from their pursuit than others. Some should chase anyone who crosses their pursuit. Some should be distracted only by players who attack them. And some should be completely indistractable, being overcome by insane bloodlust or solid purpose.
  • Barriers. A creature may not like mountainous terrain, water, or something else, and so will stop at that boundary. The boundary might be magic, psychic, by training or otherwise non-physical. The point is that many creatures should have comfort zones and doubt zones. Some won't leave their comfort zone. Some increasingly think of turning back as they gain distance from it. Also, attitudes might change dependent on where they are. If a creature has been lured to an area that increases its anxiety, it might become more or less effective in combat. It may become stronger or it may become sloppy.
  • Guards. Some guardian creatures should be lurable, while others are not. The creature may only leave its post for a limited time or limited distance (in this case, the creature is still watching the player, just not following).
  • Fear. Most creatures have a sense of odds. Only some will give chase when vastly outnumbered. Make them aware of how many of their allies are joined in the chase. And make them aware of the proximity of players without needing to be attacked or the players needing to be grouped. The group of players it is approaching may not be hostile, but how would it know that?
  • Sprinting. Some creatures could be capable of sprinting, as players often are. Some might be able to get one last attack or two in quickly, but their natural movement speed is much slower than the players; so if the player can survive a couple attacks when fleeing, he'll quickly be out of the creature's range. Sprinting can also work the other way, adding an interesting dynamic. Some creatures may be difficult to kill, not because they're difficult to fight, but because they are good at making an escape when low. I imagine this could result in some fun and interesting player group strategizing.
  • Fatigue and perception. The creature chases; the player runs; the creature sees that the player is a fast runner, so gives up right away. This allows for player types which excel at escape (like rogues). Maybe running a creature a bit and wearing down its fatigue will make it an easier fight.

Anyway, nothing much here really. I just wanted to get something up that would take an hour.

Monday, October 09, 2006

AGC registration going up?

So I just got an email informing me that "the CMP Game Group, the producers of Game Developers Conference (GDC), have acquired The Game Initiative, our conference family and our flagship Austin Game Conference (AGC)".

I remember a dev at the AGC telling me how much more expensive other conferences were compared to the AGC. Being a college student, I couldn't have afforded much more.

Does this acquisition likely mean that AGC registration will become more comparable to other conferences? If so, that's not very inviting to new blood.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

CoH, and Achievement vs Exploration

Thanks to Chas, I've been playing City of Heroes / City of Villains the past couple days using the free trial offer. This is my second time to try the game (I played City of Villains before as well). The first time around, I think I played for a month or two. I'm not going to touch on everything; just a handful. With so many things I enjoy with this game, the deal-breaker (achievement-oriented) is especially unfortunate.

Here are two of my old heroes, Stillblood and Dreamfast:

Here are my new characters, Revenot (villain) and Volcus (hero):

The visual character customization is obviously one of the greatest selling points of the game. I chose to create two dark characters, but the player can go light just as well. The visual style of the game is distinctive, easy on my 2-3 years-old computer, and probably able to continue into the next 5 years, at least, without any dire want of an upgrade.

One other visual plus is the ability to move the camera easily, take screenshots, then reset with a hotkey: But it could be improved by allowing players to hotkey other angles than the default view. I really enjoy the view used in this screenshot, behind and just to the side of the enemy. Obviously, it's not viable in every combat situation, but can make my gameplay a more cinematic experience. If I was able to switch between several camera angles quickly and easily with hotkeys, then I'd be able to enjoy that cinematic experience more frequently and fluidly (i.e., my overall game experience would be more enjoyable).

Another great aspect of the game is tactics. I'm soloing only (I grouped the first time I played CoH, but it's been too long to remember my impression). The three aspects of combat that make it tactically more impressive than other MMOs are grouped enemies, movement and inspirations.

Grouped enemies often, though not always, encourage the player to think creatively. Depending on hit/misses, the mix of enemy styles (melee, missiles, healer, etc) and a number of other factors, I'm encouraged to judge spontaneously which enemy to focus on first, which to avoid, how I can mix up my DoTs, nukes and melee between them to best manage my limited energy, etc.

I'm encouraged to move, which makes combat infinitely more interesting than just standing in one spot and hitting hotkeys. My enemies charge me, or find ideal missile positions, or run away. Chasing an enemy can be, though isn't always, a lot of fun; particularly when he's jumping fences, climbing railings, using cover, etc. And CoH allows the player to use the terrain strategically and tactically.

Inspirations are consumable buffs, and they add an interesting dynamic to combat. When it comes to game buffs (often seen in games as healing and mana potions), I'm a hoarder; the sort of player who goes to great lengths to preserve my consumables for bosses and emergencies. But whether I use them often or sparsely, they add to my enjoyment of the game either way. It's having dynamics of advantages and disadvantages from fight to fight.

CoH proves that scripting can work as well as, or better than, real A.I. sometimes. I see cultists chanting and waving as magic works on their victim floating above in an eerie green light. I see a thug standing on a box and preaching, while his cronies sit fascinated in front of him. I see an NPC tugging on a lady's purse as she refuses to let go. And saved NPCs run back to thank me. It's all very immersive, despite its repetition.

This is another area where CoH shines. Not only can I choose between a variety of skill choices that make my blaster different than other blasters of the same general focus (fire, ice, sonic, etc), but they also give me a way to make my blaster significantly different from another blaster with all of the same skills (which is rare anyway): skill enhancements. As I level, I get to choose which skills I want to add more enhancement slots to. Then I get to choose what enchancements to put in the enhancement slots.

Do I want to enhance one skill with two slots or two skills with one? Do I want to increase accuracy, damage, distance, energy efficiency, etc? This method allows for balanced and unbalanced characters, to the player's preference. My tank, the first time I played CoH, was an exception in that he didn't have a taunt skill. In bypassing that skill, I was able to put choose a further damage skill instead.

This is where CoH/CoV loses me. It's made for the old gaming crowd, who are always focused on where they're going, never where they are. I'm not an achievement-oriented gamer; I'm exploration-oriented (mostly, of course; few gamers are pure one way or another). Already, after two days, I'm feeling the boredom that's typical of MMOs to me these days. I'm bored because I'm really just doing the same thing over and over again (killing NPCs), plus one more skill or set of enhancement slots, aimed at the next skill or enhancement slots.


Maxis has had a long history of phenomenal success with the Sim City series and The Sims series, and there's obviously a lot of interest in the upcoming Spore. Blizzard had tremendous success with the Diablo series, and Flagship's Hellgate: London looks not far behind Spore's popularity. Now, maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that those games owe a large measure of their success, perhaps even the majority, to exploration-oriented gamers.

When I played the Sim City games, sure, I had the vague goal of a large and smoothly-run city. But I don't recall any point at which I was actually able to solve a problem completely (traffic went away, crime stopped, etc), and I didn't mind. In fact, I usually ended up calling in the tornado or Godzilla at some point. Mostly, I was just being creative in city design, interested more in explorative possibilities than conquest.

When I played The Sims 2, my enjoyment was in designing the buildings, furnishing them and watching the interesting twists of character interactions (ultimately, the game was too much like watching a soap opera or the WE channel for my tastes). Again, achievers' goals were there, but not the focus.

And then there's Diablo 2, one of my favorite games of all time. It was an action game...surely, it was achievement-oriented, right? Not really; or, at least, not exclusively. There were lots of goals for achievement-gamers, but the ultimate draw for me and thousands of other gamers was the dynamics that fed a sense of exploration. Again, the goals were often vague. I wasn't aiming for a particular weapon or armor. I was aiming for something cool I hadn't seen before. I knew the name of where I was going, but the map changed each game, so I didn't know which way to turn. The many dynamics made the game, which is why Roper and the other Flagship guys cite the dynamics as Hellgate's primary selling point.

City of Heroes is a good game. Cryptic did a lot with that game that deserves respect. It doesn't have to cater to gamers of my style to be a good game.

That said, I wish the MMO industry offered more combat-laden games that were not so lopsided toward achievement-oriented gaming. America is a culture heavy on achievement and competition, so I don't doubt that the majority of Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general, are most attracted to such games. But exploration-focused MMOs can do well too, without having to be peaceful or domestic (like The Sims Online or Second Life...from what I've read of them).

Star Wars: Galaxies came closest to this end. I spent a lot of my time fighting, but an equally great amount of time exploring the wilderness and taming strange creatures, or trying to creatively bioengineer animals to my personal preferences. But my hunger for exploration ran out of sustenance in that game after 6 months. The world was compelling, but not dynamic enough. In my opinion, dynamics is a key area of growth opportunity for MMOs.

It's difficult for me to pin down what exactly I'm trying to get at here. I hope that's clear.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Audio in MMOs

Some random thoughts from old discussions on Sigil's boards...

Most game music should be elevator music; that is, music that affects the listener without becoming the main attraction. Star Wars themes like the Imperial march definitely grab attention during the movies, but not enough to distract from the action.

One of the things that makes John Williams so great is his use of leit motifs. The heroes (Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones) have their own themes. The villains have their own themes (Darth Vader, Valdemort). Each setting has its own theme. Then he goes one step further and adapts the themes a little bit to the situation. More and better use of this in games would go a long way in augmenting gameplay.

To ensure players truly feel that the different legs of an epic quest are part of a grander scheme, use a musical motif. The player hears that epic's theme every time they are engaged in some action that helps to complete that quest (usually combat). Think in terms of Indiana Jones. The main theme plays throughout each movie, calling up a feeling of adventure and getting you actively rooting for Indiana. If done with multi-legged quests, the player's feeling of grand adventure could be heightenend in the same way.

Truly epic mobs could have motifs. The music would be unique in that it is tied to the mob's movements and actions. When the epic giant, for example, raises his hammer, the music rises. When the hammer comes down, the music comes down and slams with the impact. If the mob casts a spell, then the music builds up while it's casting the spell. It creates a cinematic game experience. And , in a sense, it's tailored specifically to that group's unique battle experience. If they interrupt the mob's spell, the music is interrupted.

In places you're sure players will go, views you're certain they'll see, give those scenes their own wonderful theme. A road with high walls on either side might lead up a mountain. When the player reach the top, you give them a wondrous view of the valley below and a sweeping musical theme just for that spot. If the view was memorable walking in both directions on the road, then the top of the mountain could act as a trigger for the music, and would play regardless of whether the player was just standing there, admiring the view, or if they were walking down the other side of the mountain, looking as they go. Things like this create memorable moments for players...moments they share with other players and remember fondly long afterward, reinforcing a pleasant perception of the overall game.

Sometimes silence should be deafening, as the saying goes. A dungeon is a great example. A dark, damp dungeon might have creepy, nearly-silent music; or no music at all. You hear every drop of water from the ceiling, every crackle of the lamp, and get goosebumps when you hear movement around the corner. When the attack comes, a lack of combat music forces you to concentrate on the horrible sounds the monster is making while it howls and claws; or you might hear the necromancer chanting a curse, or a cleric praying for intervention, etc.

Divide environment music by semantic setting, rather than bland zoning. Don't just give a theme to the whole zone of Butcherblock or Mos Eisley. Have a main theme for when you're following the beaten path, a theme for woodman's shack along the road, etc. Change the theme expectantly as the player nears the goblin camp. If the music suddenly drops out, that will create expectation too.

If audio is used for cues and clues, you might make player actions and abilities affect the volume of sound effects. Perhaps one race has better hearing than another, so hear particular sounds when others don't. By keeping it about particular sounds, and not all sounds, it prevents players from just cranking their volume to hear as well (they still might, but when the sounds their character hears normally come around, those sounds would blare in their ears and discourage the player from trying to cheat again; they would be warned in the manual). Wearing particular shoes might lower the volume of footsteps. An archer power shot might make a louder thud than a quick shot.

In taverns and similar settings, I'd like to hear folk music. Folk music can take many forms (lively, laments, protests, etc), but it acts as a cultural and historical identifier. This might be something as simple as a lone NPC musician or there might be a full band of locals playing in a corner.

If you've seen Gangs of New York, you might remember the part where the Irish lady slowly walks by singing a sad Irish tale. Imagine having the occasional character like that in a game. The NPC might walk around town or they might walk up and down a road. You might even have the NPC following a road from one side of a continent to another. The NPC carries a sort of bubble of music. They walk around singing or maybe playing a fiddle or something; if you get close to them, then the environment music fades away and you hear that NPC's singing/playing. Then, when the NPC continues on, the environment music picks up again. It's a good way of making the world dynamic. A player usually walks by NPCs without a glance. But if an NPC is playing music, singing, then the player is sucked in. Such NPCs could include stuff like gypsy wagons rolling from town to town. Or it might be bards sitting on some steps, trying to win some coppers from passers-by. Or it might be a young boy whistling to himself as he fishes on a lakeshore.

Maybe you want to have the additional option of, or focus on, the player's own music. Then picture a system where you add tags to tracks, or download pre-tagged keys for songs (in addition to a standard set of genre tags like grunge, rock, rap, trance, classical, etc). You have tags for gameplay scenarios like exploration, combat, victory, conquest, etc, and an music player integrated within the game which would pull tracks that were contextually appropriate for whatever was going on within the game - cross referencing the music genre with the gamestyle. So someone that likes Metallica might get Enter Sandman as a musical backdrop to big battles. Someone who likes classical music might choose Flight of the Valkyries for their combat music. Of course, each music scenario could have more than one song to shuffle between.

There's a financial opportunity here as well. Assuming your game becomes popular, you can now contract with major record labels to create and sell scenario-music compilations; like a "best of [musical genre or era]" for combat, or for exploration, etc. I hope that's clear.

Use variations of ambient sounds to create, or enhance, the environment music. In Diablo 2, Matt Uelmen does this in the swamp town (the third starting town, whatever it was). You're walking along rotten wood, rope bridges and the music is done on marimbas and other wooden sounds. If you were actually walking in a swamp, I would probably use an oboe (it can have that murky sound) or a didjeridoo. If a player is walking a high mountain trail with shrieking winds, use airy flutes. Work in actual sound effects, if possible.

This goes for combat music as well. Combat music, if you have it, should vary in style like any other setting. Imagine something quick and eerie on a sitar while fighting a scorpion in the desert. Military encounters might include wardrums.

Games shy away from this, but it can be extremely beneficial at times. I want to hear understandable drinking songs, laments, hymns, etc. I want to hear reverent choirs. An ancient order might sing chants. There are dozens of choir styles (I'm particularly fond of Russian choirs). You don't have to hire professionals for this. Most people know at least someone with a decent voice, some of them quite beautiful or otherwise compelling.

Music and sounds can signal action or cause it. Belltowers signal time, and sometimes are the cue for events to begin. Ancient armies used horns signal attacks.

Audio cues like the environmental music dropping out in anticipation of danger can be made uncertain by false cues, like the music dropping out when there is no danger. Crying wolf too much will undermine cue music, but it might prove useful sporadically. True cues can be used toward many types of scenarios. A group might be wandering around a large, dark castle chamber in awe when a character passes by a hidden door and some noise, like the scuffling of a rat, hints at its location. The sound can be made subtle by occurring only the first time that character passes the door's location.

True cues can be made uncertain by the inclusion of false cues, like the music dropping out when there is no danger. Crying wolf too often can undermine the use of true cues, but it might prove useful sporadically. Also, music should not mislead players by having sounds that could be part of the environment. The best example I can think of is when I'm driving and the CD I'm listening to has a honked horn, causing to look around and see who's honking.

Sound effects should often not draw much attention at times, but it should at other times. The sound of the ringwraiths in LOTR was comprised of grating steel (gut-wrenching sound), little kids screaming (gut-wrenching sound), and dry ice among other things. For the Baalrog's roar, the foley designer mixed stone being crushed and fire. Innovative foley design for characters and creatures can be particularly important in creating immersion. Expectation plays a major role. If the player expects a beast to growl in a particular way and you offer just that sound, then that player might take no notice or might mildly think "cool". But if you offer a sound strange and far more terrifying that expected, the player's experience is significantly improved.

It would be cool to hear the muffled music of the tavern hall while I'm in the inn room upstairs. A lion or elephant can be heard from over a mile away. Imagine hearing something like that, knowing a fearful sounding monster is somewhere not far off in a particular direction. Do you go that way to see what is making that awesome sound? or do you head in the opposite direction, steering clear of danger?

Some animal sounds are misleading. Here, in the subtropical region where I grew up, we've got tons of birds and bugs alike. But an untrained ear often can't distinguish between some of the bugs and birds. Some bugs are as loud as a dog barking. Some birds make a bug-like, scratchy croaking noise. So imagine a player hearing a non-aggressive animal noise and thinking "you're mine!". But, when they finally find the creature making the noise, it's not something they want to mess with (too late!). Or vice versa. Players move the opposite direction from a scary sound, which is really just a small animal (you must hear a Tasmanian devil; those things sound truly evil). Or how about a mockingbird or parrot? Some creatures might mimick the sounds of other creatures to lure players or scare them away.

How many times have you watched a movie or read a book where the main character steps on something, moves something and hears that horrifying "click"....and they just know something bad's about to happen (a boobytrap, perhaps). Foleys like this can be very memorable.

There's other stuff I could talk about, like combat music shifting with the turn of the tide in battle, but I'll stop there.

Friday, October 06, 2006


This is a repost of my thoughts from Raph's site:

Mohanbir Sawhney (from Morgan Ramsay’s post) wrote: “As consumers have become increasingly empowered and demanding, marketing gurus have preached the benefits of customer-relationship management”

When I think of game forums, I’m reminded of my hometown, where a Home Depot and Lowes were bulit facing each other, their parking lots hardly separated, in a secluded lot (no other stores adjoining either)…a real showdown. The Home Depot was the first to be built, and everyone and their mother was a Home Depot customer for many years. They were heavy on customer service. Then the Lowes opened up, offered far less customer service and stole roughly half of Home Depot’s customerbase anyway. The general consensus among people in my hometown was that you’d get more service at Home Depot, but Lowes had the more inviting environment.

Again, “consumers have become increasingly empowered and demanding". Perverse consumer power creates an uninviting environment. It’s the perception (be it real or illusory) of power that makes flaming a viable customer option. Customers don’t ask for service anymore, they demand it. Afterall, they’re always right, as the saying goes (that saying dehumanizes customers and portrays them as commodities, by the way). Dramatic and selfish demands are generally rewarded, and so such behavior becomes more common among customers. Little “Mom and Pap” shops are more inviting, not just because they’re small and you can develop a personal relationship with the store owner, but also because the owners of such shops demand reasonable behavior and expectations from their customerbase. Yes, they lose some customers this way, but they gain more and have stronger customer loyalty. American consumers in general have been cultured to become selfish brats, but it’s not impossible to reculture them with the obvious appeal of a civil atmosphere.

Listening to your customers should be done privately, not among a crowd of people who should have been accosted for their vile behavior and perhaps even kicked out of the “store” long ago anyway. Have an easily noticeable and inviting feedback form on your game’s website. Inviting means more than just nicely rounded letters and a big “howdy!"; it means not asking for the player’s blood-type just to submit some simple feedback. In fact, you don’t even need to verify that the feedback is coming from a player, because you can likely tell where it’s coming from and anyone who shapes your reputation is a concern, customer or not, as Raph said (though playing defense against unreasonable accusations is often not productive).

If you don’t respond, then at least there’s not a flurry of flamers getting the customer riled up and disallowing that feedback from sinking into history; and the customer is encouraged to practice faith in the company. If you do respond (with something other than the typical robotic garbage most CS reps and systems churn out), then you’ve established a personal relationship…an impression that’s infinitely more difficult to create through a forum, because forums aren’t one-on-one dialogue.

A smart CS program would even keep a Gmail-type record system of previous conversations, allowing CS reps to quickly search for and review feedback from persons of the same email address. If you can create the illusion that you actually remember your customer from a previous engagement, then you’ve taken a large leap into a rewarding CS relationship.

In short, I think game companies should not sponsor regular forums of their own. They’re unnecessary to a strong CS program, they’re difficult to enculture; and, most importantly, they encourage players to think of themselves as part of something like a union, set distant from and often against the company, rather than a valued customer with a one-on-one relationship.

[and in further response to that discussion...]
Obviously, forum discussion has its advantages over live discussion in-game. But the developer benefits from forum discussions equally on a fansite forum as on a company-operated one…and without needing to identify himself or herself as a developer, which may seem beneficial at times.

An “us and us” mentality (as opposed to "us", the developers and "them", the players) is not beneficial. It does not help to essentially approach the player for design help, rather than simply listening and responding on an individual basis when approached (email and phone).

For one thing, this discourages players from enjoying the game as it is. When a player feels empowered to change the game, that player is no longer free to simply “play” and instead adopts a critical mentality, which diminishes both the degree and longevity of enjoyment. When I played EQ (my first MMO) and was still ignorant of the degree of interaction between developers and players, I was far less critical of my gameplay experience than I was later with SWG. This had a significant impact on my ability to lose myself in the game and my overall perception of the game’s appeal. Players should feel separate from designers.

An absence of a clear border between them also encourages developers to lose sight of their game’s core concept and philosophies, to undermine its essential definition (what makes it “this” game, as opposed to “that” game). It encourages the “customer is always right” attitude, by which can customers sneak into some measure of control and corrupt “The Vision". What people ask for and what actually makes them happy are quite often not the same. An “us and us” mentality discourages recognition of that basic fact, and the repercussions can be great.

Which is not to suggest that the company must think of itself as entirely separate from the players…a sense of community is definitley important. But official forums are the wrong way to go about ratifying that community.

[and still further...]
No, choosing to not directly invite customers into design discussions does not assume that the game is just fine. Instead, it encourages clearer distinction between petty and major customer concerns. If you have developed a semi-personal relationship with your customers, they will not wait until disaster to point out problems or refrain from providing creative and constructive feedback.

How do you create a personal relationship with customers without design discussions, before the customer has a concern (and, in a sense, it’s too late)? You do it the way business owners have done it since the dawn of history: you don’t limit your discussions to business. Modern economic theory has a bad habit of approaching business as separate from social life (which is why “it’s just business” is a common…and false..moral distinction in modern society). Though I have mixed opinions about Vanguard’s pre-beta forums, one certain and significant benefit of Sigil’s CS approach is that the devs’ many friendly (non-business) discussions created and strengthened customer loyalties.

Anyway, when one is encouraged to think of potentials and ideals only occasionally and naturally, then that person can typically enjoy what already is. But when potentials and ideals are considered constantly and responsively, that type of thinking commonly leads to dissatisfaction with the present. Without direct encouragement like official forums, players will continue to help developers improve, but they will do so with moderation, with temperance…without spoiling their enjoyment of the game.

Raph is correct that the border between consumers and producers is increasingly questioned in many industries, but that doesn’t qualify it as progress. Really, one might argue that this trend is more about culture than profit; that it’s merely the economic application of a cultural attitude which disfavors concepts of roles and absolutes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Housing and friends

In Green's design challenge on player housing (, he wrote: "for all the care and attention I give to my place, nobody will see it....[or] appreciate it". That's a common problem in MMOs. How do you enable the player to share his or her home without boring friends?

Well, why do friends come over to the house in real life?

  • To share an interactive leisure (conversation, video games, board games, etc).
  • To share a receptive leisure (TV, watching the wildlife from your porch or patio, etc).
  • To share a constructive experience (building, fixing, working out personal issues, etc).
  • To share a design experience (landscaping, architecture, furnishings, etc).
  • To deposit or remove items.

Now, why at a house, as opposed to somewhere else?

  • It's a predictable (and safe) environment.
  • It's a personal environment.
  • It's a secluded environment.
  • It's where the desired items/service are located.

What did I miss? Anyway, there's a number of possibilities that can be drawn from that. (since I'm pressed for time today and I tend to drone on anyway, I'm going to try to focus on just pointing out areas of consideration, rather than coming up with solutions)

Yeah, an MMO home is a predictable environment, but so are many, if not most, other places in an MMO. These games aren't dynamic enough yet to regularly surprise even those players familiar with a given area. Predictability isn't going to keep players indoors by itself, of course, but it is a significant factor. If I can do whatever out in the middle of the road just as well as inside a building, without any fear of the unforeseen bandits, dragons or thunderstorm, then why not do it there?

MMO developers perhaps have a unique challenge in this regard. In real life, I prefer to have my personal conversations and interactions with friends away from others. Nobody likes the idea of strangers eavesdropping on their conversations, and we are easily distracted by voices and noises. If there's another conversation next to you or someone's music blaring in your ear, your own conversation can be difficult. So we take the conversation to a secluded environment...often a home.

In MMOs, you never have to speak above the noise. You can open up a private chat window so that other conversations don't disrupt your own. This a downside to non-localized chat (which is not to suggest that alone makes localized chat a better option). And though you may see nearby players occasionally doing stupid things or emoting in some way, you've likely seen it before and it's not a great distraction.

In real life, a home is usually not a static setting. You can turn on the TV to inspire topics for your conversation. You can turn on the stereo for background music as you shoot some pool, and occasionally grab another beer out of the fridge. In a sense, the house isn't just sitting there looking pretty as you do things. It's not just a're interacting with it to combine experiences and create new ones (like picking up a pillow from the couch and smacking your friend with it).

In real life, I help a friend build patios and patio coverings from time to time, and have helped with many similar projects since I was a kid. I enjoy it. For the owner in particular, there's often a great pride in recognizing a product as the fruits of one's own imagination and labor. A structure often means more to the owner who built it himself than to the owner who just bought it. But, as someone just helping another or building for a job, even knowing I'll probably never again see the thing I've constructed, I enjoy the conclusion and I enjoy the process...largely because I was working alongside a friend or family member. Obviously, cooperative game developers are well aware of this feeling.

In gameplay, it's more common to share a destructive experience ("die, worm!") than this sort. Sometimes there's strategizing on the part of the group or guild, though usually a strategy is already known and there's not much creative input needed. Up to this point, in the MMOs I'm familiar with, crafting and other contstructive experiences have been solo work. Sometimes there's sequential groupplay involved (the player constructs one part and then hands it the next person to construct the next part), but that usually permits players to act separately and demands only limited interaction between players. In EQ2, there was some socialization, but the reliance was limited, as I recall. Sigil's crafting system for Vanguard seems the most promising by getting players to really work side-by-side, in both the harvesting and crafting phases, but I'm not sure how it actually pans out.

Anyway, does that spark any ideas?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Nintendo's history and current strategy

Today, Raph provided a link to an interview in which Nintendo's CEO, Iwata Satoru, pointed out that each generation of Nintendo consoles has sold less copies ( Satoru also references Nintendo's current strategy of skipping the high-definition bandwagon to build games more cheaply and perhaps encourage focus on gameplay.

I was raised on the Nintendo consoles, starting on the NES when I six or seven years old and playing each new console through Gamecube. I never owned a Sony console and I considered myself a Nintendo faithful all that time. Sure, I spent an entire summer over at a friend's house playing Twisted Metal 2 on his Playstation, but I was never convinced into buying a Sony console, and I had countless discussions defending Nintendo against my Sony rivals. Whether or not this lifetime of experience with the Nintendo consoles and games represents the common journey of Nintendo fans, I don't know. But, entertaining the possibility that it does, I'd like to explain why my interest in their consoles waned alongside their sales, and why their new strategy may or may not attract American gamers like me back into the fold.

With each new console, the number of available games got smaller, and the number of really good games along with it.

Two decades after playing an NES, I can still name 10 great games with hardly a pause for thought in between (Excitebike, Marble Madness, Mario Bros/Duck Hunt, Castlevania, Master Blaster, Paperboy, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Contra, Final Fight, Double Dragon), and that's by no means the extent of that console's impressive games. With the SNES, I owned half as many games, though there were still plenty of great titles (Street Fighter, ActRaiser, Super Mario, Donkey Kong Kountry, Mario Kart, etc). With the N64, again, I owned half as many games as the console before it, with just a few stellar games (Goldeneye, Super Smash Bros, DK 64, Star Wars Pod Racing, etc). Finally, with the Gamecube, I played just four games (Luigi's Mansion, Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness, and Super Smash Bros Melee) and kept only one (SSBM) before trading it in for an Xbox and Halo. I had never traded in a console before.

During this time, as fewer and fewer Nintendo games attracted me, it became harder to justify my preference for Nintendo to my Sony fan friends. Sony had what seemed a monstrous collection of games...but I told my friends "yeah, but few of them are any good" (I didn't know, I hadn't played them).

That said, Xbox didn't seem much more attractive. I played the hell out of Halo, bought Halo 2 and returned it after a few days, but never bought another game (I rented many and didn't care for any enough to buy).

Another factor, though I'm honestly not sure how effective it was in my loss of interest, was redundant IPs. Mario's a cool enough guy, but I didn't think I was buying the Mario Game Console. I don't care how popular the original Mario Bros game was, most of the games on the NES that I played religiously were not Mario games. I wouldn't even call most of them cartoony. Yet, by the time the N64 had been out a year, the famous Italian plumber was in desperate need of a strong smack with his own wrench.

But, like I said, maybe that's a mistaken impression and it wasn't really much of a factor.

So now they're avoiding the high-definition war. Great. Hey, I love high-definition gaming. But if skipping that innovation allows Nintendo to get back to the old model of pumping out game after game after game, then I'll take it.

I bought an Xbox 360 last year. I enjoyed the hell out of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Call of Duty 2, Oblivion and even Dead Rising for a while, but right now I don't own a single 360 game. Sometimes, I think of trading it in, but I keep it in hopes that next year will be different and offer a steady stream of great games (though Hellgate: London and Spore will have me ignoring consoles completely for a while, once they're out).

The point is that a steady stream of quality game releases is important to retaining customer interest and loyalty.

...but wait!
Of course, simply skipping over high-definition might not reduce the production cost of Nintendo titles enough to realize that revolution (as in the old definition of "returning to the good path" see, that name was better). For one, they've created a very new system with a significant learning curve for developers. And second, people tend to dislike saving money in practice, if not in theory. Is Nintendo demanding small budgets, rather than allowing everyone to spend the same high budgets in a different way? High-def graphics aren't the only drain money can go down, you know.

Even assuming Nintendo has the right business model this time around, they lost Rareware to Microsoft. That's huge. Rareware was behind some of the best titles ever released on Nintendo consoles (Donkey Kong Kountry and Goldeneye, among others). It was the first developer I ever really cared enough to research, long before I had any interest in a game design career.

More than just designing great games, Rareware understood how to design games for an American audience. I'll be the first to admit I simply don't understand a lot of Japanese games. I've taken college courses in Asian Philosophy, Asian Literature (modern) and have sprinkled knowledge of Chinese and Japanese histories, ancient and modern...but I just don't get their games sometimes. Looking at the games I've seen advertised for the Wii so far, I get the impression these games just aren't my style. If they go back to a model of extensive game libraries, maybe there'll be enough my style to suck me back in.

Anyway, long story short, I have a lot of respect for Nintendo still, but they'll need more than a fancy new controller to bring me back.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Some thoughts in reaction to the discussion of balance on Green's site this past week:

It's acceptable for one character template (class, skillset, etc) to be much more popular than another, provided the gameplay does not demand all templates to be present to conquer most encounters. Each template only has to be popular enough to justify its design cost. So half as many players might play necromancers as play knights, but that's alright if enough players enjoy necromancers to offset their design cost. It also must be acknowledged that templates can improve a player's gameplay without that player ever choosing to play that template himself. Just because one loves playing as a barbarian doesn't mean one doesn't appreciate the presence of clerics in the game.

Players can vary more like colors than hues. Templates do not have to be equally complex or equally difficult/easy, if the game is designed so. That's a restriction when every template is expected to engage in PvP, but the mere presence of trade professions in MMOs demonstrates this is not a universal expectation. The main factor that limits dissimilarity is player expectations, including in regards to fairness. Even though my fellow player is contributing as much to our group as me, should he receive an equal reward if his gameplay his simpler and easier? On the one hand, it's possible to train players to think "yes".

But it's also possible to reward more complicated gameplay with a more complicated reward system. Should all characters be bound to the same system of punishments and rewards? Perhaps not. Thinking laterally, we should consider the possibility of separate and incongruent avenues of gameplay contributing to a great whole.

In the real world, countless systems which are seamingly separate combine to form larger systems and, ultimately, a unified whole. Gravity, the shifting of Earth's mantle and crust, and the sun's blasting rays are separate systems of very different designs that combine to create the weather system of Earth. Movements in the arts and philosophy combine with movements in scientific research to create culture systems. The same principle may be applied to MMO gameplay. They can have vastly different goals and process, even largely ignore each other, while still combining into a unified world.

Of course, that begs the question: Can players disagree about the ultimate nature and purpose of that world, like people do about the real world?

It's acceptable for one template to be less popular among groups than others if the game is intentionally designed so. Grouping doesn't have to be a core, universal element of gameplay in an MMO. As I've pointed out before, there are a number of reasons solo players are often attracted to this genre, including the expansive worlds (which allow months-worth of exploration) and greater illusions of a living world (other players needn't interact directly with the solo player to improve his or her gameplay). Furthermore, the presence of solo players can improve the gameplay of group-oriented players. How many popular fantasies present one or more "lone wolf" characters as pivotal story figures? Games can be designed so that both types of players benefit more obviously from the presence of the other.

Look at it this way, an MMO is a virtual society. In real-world societies, loners benefit the masses without much social interaction, such as a web programmer or architect, on one extreme, and geniuses like Beethoven and Da Vinci, on the other. You don't have to interact with people directly to be a vital member of their society. As players are increasingly able to impact their gameworlds, the importance of soloers in virtual societies will become more obvious.

All of this is meant less as a critique of current MMOs than as recognition of some viable alternative methods.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

ocean city concept

I'm going to take a break from philosophy this time and offer a "zone" idea instead. Bioshock's X06 trailer with the underwater city reminded me of an old idea (most of this I'm just improvising though). Having grown up reading Jacques Cousteau books and spending whole summers on the Gulf Coast, I'm very hopeful about making use of that knowledge in design one day.

Imagine a city built into the walls of an ocean trench. It's not a unified cliff dwelling like Mesa Verde, but a collection of separate pockets of architecture scattered on both sides of the trench. The ocean shelf hangs over the top of the trench, with seaweed dangling from its edge. Beneath this smooth overhang, the trench walls are uneven and porous.

The whole city is lit with the bioluminescence of captured and concentrated plankton, in globes of various sizes and in rope-like cables. The most basic dwellings are carved from the cliff mud. The most elegant structures are covered in iridescent fish scales, pearls, ivory and abalone. Pillars of whalebone and cemented corals prevent erosion from collapsing the civilized pockets. Natural water currents are redirected and squeezed to provide quick and efficient avenues of travel between the sides of the city and elsewhere.

The pores of the trench walls, after millenia of erosion by water currents, interconnect to create long and complex cavern systems. Many of these have been explored and carefully catalogued. The majority of sizable tunnels have been gated and guarded.

All manner of creatures roam within the trench, including an intelligent race of eel-like beings with translucent bodies which make them difficult to spot until already upon their prey. As if this were not enough, countless of their kind have been exterminated to protect the ever-expanding city, and so their ghosts often haunt the city and trenchways. Thus, one is often unsure if the figure approaching from the darkness is a living eel-kin or a harmless (though frightening) spectre. It is said that in the deeper corridors, one may be caught by the undertow and dragged to the horrific dwelling of these creatures; but many say that is only a superstition.

There are other cities beneath the waves, though most are not in trenches. Some cling to floating plantlife on the water's surface, like upside-down igloos, with surface exits. These people trade with the landfolk. Another people dwells in immense coral towers and has tamed some hard-plated sea creatures as guardians and mounts. And then there are the nomadic tribes, who connect the cities in trade and provide transport in their whaleships (hollowed-out whale carcasses, kept fresh through the application of nutrients, steered through bioelectric manipulation, and divided into habitable chambers for stock and travellers).

That's all I care to come up with for now.