Friday, August 31, 2007

Breaking the barrier

Some of the guys from Gamespy are presenting at the AGC next week on the topic of Breaking the In-game / Out-of-game Barrier. This is one of the presentations I'd really like to attend, but I chose something else in that time-slot.

The general topic reminded me of a thread on the old Vanguard forums in which Jon Grande (Taranis), a Microsoft rep working with Sigil at the time, mentioned the possibility of connecting an MMO like Vanguard to out-of-game life:

"The comment about enabling "off-line play" had to do with the potential of enabling communications into and outside of the game.

As a simplistic example - let's say you're a high level crafter, you've
made several high end bows, and your guild has setup a shop to sell them. You setup your merchant NPC to sell the bows at a specific price and notify you when the bows sell. You get notified, via whatever mechanism you've specified as your preference (email, IM, vmail, etc) and you respond to the merchant. You tell him to buy enough high-end/craftable wood and sinew for you to craft 5 more bows when you get online again. You then get notified when he's bought the components - so you know that you'll be ready to go when you get online. Take that as a starting point and let your imagination wander ..."

Of course, brainstorming is my specialty, so I jumped at the bait:

"If there are things like newspapers in the games, to inform players of stuff going on in the wide world, could we receive that news through email or an outside medium? [which isn't so very different from what Shadowbane did]

I suppose any text message or image that players can mail to one another in-game... could be forwarded to out-of-game mail.

There could be scrying towers around the marketplaces that take screenshots of the market activity every half hour or so. Merchants could opt to be emailed those screenshots however many half-hour increments they wish, or at particular times (real-life). This would allow them to have an idea of how successful they'll be at certain times, certain seasons...and whether they should spend their online time messing with their shopkeepers or crafting instead.

For adventurers, they could receive reports of rumors of which way a monster or NPC headed in the area they subscribe to; or what those mischievous orcs of Balhemm have been up to today....are they sending out messengers? are they attacking caravans?

For scholars and crafstmen, there could be rumors of what texts and crafting techniques have been discovered by players recently, and with whom they should enquire about these marvellous finds."

Obviously, there's stuff like GuildCafe, allowing players to share game achievements and choices out-of-game. Gamespy and Xbox Live offer leaderboards and statistics. I'm sure there's much room for growth in that arena.

There's also the storytelling using game assets that people like Chas do.

Another possibility is riddles and other puzzles that begin in-game but are challenging enough to encourage players to continue trying to solve the problems out-of-game. The great thing about this avenue is that mind-games can be tackled anywhere and, depending on the specific puzzle, solved without need of any tool (keyboard, cellphone, pen and paper, etc.). You might begin trying to solve it the moment it's posed to you in-game, but you could continue trying to solve it while driving in your car, nibbling during your lunchbreak, brushing your teeth, whatever.

Such puzzles could help bring the game's community together, especially if they required knowledge from multiple areas of the game (different classes, factions, regions, etc.).

They could also bind the game's community to persons and communities who do not play the game, if the riddles were not bound to game information (like Bilbo's riddles in The Hobbit) or somehow rewarded out-of-game knowledge. Even if those helping never bought the game, giving players even a little opportunity to share their game experiences with friends and family increases enjoyment of the game.

It might even soften pressures on those whose family or friends don't understand gaming. My dad doesn't get gaming at all, but he loves crosswords and intellectual challenges like that. If, as a member of a particular game's community, could email my dad such a challenge a couple times per month, he'd probably view my gaming in a very different light...because he'd be indirectly involved, and looking forward to the next challenge from my involvement. I'm sure people with spouses or other live-in relations who don't play video games would love something like this.

Wow. That Vanguard thread was over three years ago! I still miss that community.

Incidentally, that's one of the reasons I'm interested in the Community Influencers panel, which I'll be attending in lieu of the barrier-breaking presentation. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think I probably would have been counted as a "community influencer" for a while in that old Vanguard community. I helped in keeping tempers level and encouraging others to make productive posts.

Another reason ties into this topic, I suppose: I wonder if community influencers can/should be identified or addressed in-game; not just on forums, fansites and blogs? I can't help but think that the panel might give me in-game design insights.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

AGC final schedule

I finally got around to choosing between my "possibles" and putting together a definite schedule. Like last time, I'll be missing a lot of presentations I really want to hear, but oh well. I'll be spending more time at the Writing sessions than any other track, since writer positions are what I'll be applying for (mainly, at least).


  • 9:30 - How to Rule the World (of Warcraft): Ten Lessons
  • 11:00 - Everything I Needed to Know about Game Writing I Learned from Star Trek
  • 1:30 - Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories that Flow
  • 3:00 - Identifying, Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers
  • 4:30 - Is It Fun Yet?


  • 9:30 - Negotiating Mind Games [This one got left off the Schedule at a Glance summary; but it's still listed among the sessions, so I'm assuming it's still alive.]
  • 11:00 - Designing for Global Entertainment: Launching Final Fantasy XI on Multiple Platforms
  • 1:30 - The Zen of Online Game Design
  • 3:00 - Playing Nice with Alternative Media
  • 4:30 - Writing, the Bioware Way


  • 9:30 - A Game Industry Journeyman
  • 11:00 - Creating a New Age of VO in Games
  • 1:30 - Literate Gaming: How We Can and Must Do Better at Writing for Games

I've always wanted to know how to rule the world. Finally, I will. =)

By the way, if anyone else attending was looking forward to the PC GameOn following the conference, I noticed that it's been cancelled (though it's still listed in the AGC's preview guide).

I know a few of you are staying at the same hotel. If you'd like a ride, rather than getting a taxi or walking in our glorious Texas heat, I'd be happy to pick you up. But I'm planning on being at the AGC for a 9:30 session all three days.

I'll likely be driving into town sometime late afternoon on Tuesday. I haven't made plans for when I'll be heading home, since San Antonio (where I'm living now) is only about an hour-and-a-half from Austin.

Oh yeah. If you weren't already aware, Southerners judge distance by time, instead of miles. =P

Moshpits and inspired violence

For whatever reason, there seems to be a lot of crossover between die-hard gamers and headbangers.

When we're swapping favorite bands, not many mention the particular branch of metal that I grew up on (Pantera, C.O.C., Anthrax, Alice in Chains, Metallica, Ozzy, etc.). But there's a ton of gamers of the FPS, sports and MMO crowds who cheer to one brand or another of rough, nasty guitar and pounding drums.

And every headbanger knows how some good metal can really get the adrenaline pumping. There's a reason the U.S. Armed Forces usually use metal in their recruitment ads on TV. My brother and I used to joke that, "This song makes me want to kill somebody!" My cousin once described a scene of a battlefield while we were listening to "Bury Me in Smoke" by Down, and to this day that image comes to mind whenever I listen to it.

Anyway, so I started wondering how metal might be better integrated into a video game, and this is what I came up with. Sounds and music are hard to describe, but I'll do my best.

Swing to the music
How about a fighting or action game that rewards moves being in time with the music?

Some songs would make this relatively easy. If it's got a pretty steady beat, the player just has to land one of a set of moves on the beat.

Other songs, like "Vote with a Bullet" by Corrosion of Conformity, would have more variance and expect more of the player. These are songs with crescendos (build-ups) and rhythmic tricks. If there are two "taps" before a "punch" in the music's rhythm (like a triplet with the last note accented, for you musicians), then the player is rewarded for executing a spinning move which lasts roughly the duration of the three notes. If one note is emphasized more strongly than another, like when the drummer comes down hard on the crash cymbals, then a stronger attack is rewarded.

Mosh to victory
If it was a fighting game, ala Street Fighter or Tekken, then I would make the game about simple moshpits.

For those who aren't aware, a moshpit is an area, sometimes lowered (a "pit"), at metal concerts where headbangers start dancing violently... pushing, ramming, and often elbowing each other. In this game, the violence would be exagerrated... beyond believeability, to ensure nobody can reasonably think the game is encouraging such behavior in real life. Honestly, most headbangers hate people who throw punches in a moshpit.

It could be point-based, but I think a "last man standing" mode would be more fun. Imagine being in close-quartered fisticuffs with 15-20 other guys. The music's blaring. The crowd all around you is cheering and it pushes wanderers back into the fight if they get too close to the edge. As participants in the moshpit get knocked out, there's more and more room in the pit. The increased space allows for greater maneuvering, but it also opens up the possibility of moves/skills which require a certain amoung of room. If the first song ends, then you all get a breather to strategize and regain some energy before the next song starts. When the fight is over, the crowd roars with delight and the victor gets picked up to crowd-surf onto the stage with the band.

There might also be an endurance mode, in which you last as long as you can in the pit while more contenders trickle in from the surrounding crowd. You can then compare your time and points (for spetacular moves, combos, and maybe difficulty of dynamically added mosher types) to other players online.

And you could compete directly with 2-4 of your friends locally (if the game offers a wide and somewhat top-down view) or with more players online. Earn mulitplayer titles, new character customizations (a mohawk, piercings, tattoos, etc.) and other rewards. Earn emblems of your favorite bands to tattoo on your character or wear as badges on your jacket.

Headbanger hack-and-slash
Really, the above sounds like the better integration of metal, but it might also be tied into an adventure game.

I'd probably make the setting a gritty, urban environment with street battles. The weapons would be either melee stuff like bats, crowbars, brass knuckles and the like, or guns. I'd love to hack-and-slash with weapons to the rhythms and movements of the music. Movements in the music might even open up skills and opportunities not otherwise available.

For example, the beginning of the solo of Ozzy's "No More Tears" might take the game into slow-motion, with fire erupting in a ring around the player (possibly just a visual, but scorching the enemies surrounding the player if he's lucky) when the crescendo reaches its climax and the solo really gets going.

For this sort of gameplay, it wouldn't have to be restricted to metal or even popular music. I could make a pretty cool dungeon crawl experience out of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" or other classical tunes.

Honestly, I'm not sure how I'd work this into a full game, but I think it might be possible. But I'd love to take all of my favorite songs and work them into adventures and events like that. It would probably have to be some other sort of adventure game, perhaps one that's largely on rails, like Bioshock.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NPC formations

In real life, it's not just humans that use formations, in combat or otherwise. As usual, the real world has countless models which developers could adapt to gameplay, for AI behavior or otherwise.

Arrow formation
Birds often flock in an arrow formation, allowing all but the leader to expend less energy by flying in another's draft. Seagulls will stand in a similar formation on the ground, allowing most to rest easier since they don't have to struggle to remain balanced.

In a game, NPCs are dealing with real physics, so the drafting doesn't seem to have much application. But such formation may aid group casting and such. You might see two casters standing behind another, channeling their energy into him and thereby allowing him to cast spells beyond his level or collaborative-only spells.

And of course, aesthetically, it would be cool to see a herd of anything in a game, moving and shifting as a flock of birds or school of fish would.

Follow the leader
I once saw a video of a herd of water buffalo set upon by lions. The lions hid in the grass until they were able to sneak up and capture a calf. All the buffalo ran, except for the big leader. He stayed and tried to get the lions away from the calf. Eventually, the leader's courage inspired the others to come back and join the fight, at which point the lions didn't even have a chance.

That would be a cool scenario to see in a game. Imagine if your presence startled all but the leader. The others run away, but remain close enough to witness the fight. If you don't kill the leader quickly enough, the others will find their courage and enter the fight. They might be enough to overwhelm you, or they might simply stack the odds a bit. If you do kill the leader quickly, the others will really run away and not look back.

In general, it would be nice to see NPCs form up behind their leaders. They might try to remain close to the leader during combat, to retain his leadership group-buffs. There are probably many other interesting ways to tinker with the leader-follower relationship.

Ring formation
In many species, adults will form a protective circle around their young.

NPCs might form a protective ring around any valuable object. It might be an important character, a quest item, or just treasure. When you kill one, the circle becomes smaller and closes. A thief-type class might have a skill to rush through the gap (if he times it right), to sneak in a backstab or grab something on the inside, before leaping/tumbling over an NPC on the far side to escape before the NPCs turn.

I'm not sure where all lovebugs live, but the South sees them all over the place at certain times of year. During the mating season, they're usually seen crawling and flying around while attached to one another at the abdomen.

Some NPCs might fight back-to-back if surrounded in a skirmish or an actual battle (I hope to see full army combat soon in MMOs). Some creatures may even attach as lovebugs do. The attachment might offer them buffs (kill one and the other loses its buff) or even allow them to share one healthpool (meaning you can no longer fight them one at a time or rely on reducing the odds halfway through the fight).

Archerfish lurk just beneath the water's surface and spit water out at unsuspecting bugs on nearby branches to topple them into the water, where the fish can eat them.

Imagine your group walking across and bridge or ledge when a creature attacks you (and only you) with some sort of missile, knocking you over the edge and down where it can get at you. Now you're stuck in the water or mud, separated from your party, having to fight this thing ambusher alone. Maybe it's something you can take alone, or maybe you call for your groupmates to jump down and help (maybe your group's distance fighters can help from where they're at, or maybe this creature has an extraordinary range and your group will all need to jump down).

Monday, August 27, 2007

Song switch on music site

As a result of steady reminders, I've finally switched out the songs on my music site (the link for which I've had at the bottom of this site's sidebar for a while now).

I left the fantasy-themed "A Season for War", the one I blogged about not long ago. The others are two old songs and one more recent one, all just recorded live today. Really, I should re-record with separate tracks (the vocals to "Dementor" are kind of hard to hear), but it's a miracle when anything gets recorded at all, haha.

As I wrote in the site's profile, there's a good chance I'll be moving in with my cousin Danny soon (provided I don't get a game job in Austin), in which case my vocals and recordings will be much better. I've never been comfortable singing very freely (loud) in this little apartment, but that will change if I'm in a house with my cousin, who is probably an even more avid rocker than I am. Living around family again will pick up my energy level, too, which has always been a factor in the rarity of recordings.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy one or two songs.

Story, again

A long one. Read it a little at a time, if you like. But I wanted to get all of it down, because this is central to how I approach game design. This one counts for today's article and tomorrow's! ;)

Story in films and books is about other persons' choices and experiences. Story in games is about the player's choices and experiences.

I've harped on about game cinematics before, how they usually focus less on the player than on someone else's story. I like the use of quality cinematics to set the game's tone and relay the big picture (like those in Diablo 2), as well as a handful of other uses (like Gears of War's controlling the player's camera for just a moment to direct the player's attention), but cinematics more often make the mistake of following the narrative method of non-interactive mediums.

Don't get me wrong. I liked the story of Halo. But that wasn't the player's story. The story of Halo was told in between the player's adventure segments, not as part of that adventure. Like most game developers, Bungie thought of game narrative as a film which the player unlocks and views bit by bit (watch movie -> play game -> watch movie -> play game). Not surprisingly, I call those "film games" -- the cinematics are essentially separate from the actual gameplay, so it's a combination of film and game (analogous to silent movies, which combined literature with film).

So, if not that, what is a developer's role in the game story? How can a story be individual to the player and truly represent his or her own involvement in the gameworld?

  • 1) Set the stage with dynamics, depth, and room for individuality.
  • 2) Encourage the player to predict, reflect, qualify, and organize his experiences into a unified and cohesive narrative.

Humans are social animals. It's in our nature to want to share our experiences. But not every story is worth telling. Players have a much easier time finding their own stories when they have a good setting and props.

Ever started to tell a joke and the listener says he's already heard that one? Did you go on telling the joke? Probably not. We like to share, but not the same story over and over again.

That applies not just to the stories we tell others but to the stories we tell ourselves, the memories worth keeping. If fighting bandits, fighting goblins, and fighting trolls are all essentially steps in the same old grind, then the player doesn't distinguish the memories strongly from each other. But if bandits manage to ambush the player, the goblins are cowards and try to run away when they lose the advantage of numbers, and trolls are big tough bastards who have a bad habit of camping out in the middle of the road, then those are three distinct experiences...worthy of rememberance and being told.

The more dynamics, the better. Dynamics keep the game feeling fresh.

Ideally, the game should feel like a continuation of one story (the character's epic adventure) with various sub-plots and a good helping of fluff. In order to not feel disjointed, the sub-plots must all tie in to the greater adventure somehow. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, from shaping the character to horizontally changing the player's circumstances (including setting) to advancing the player toward a particular encounter.

Fluff is the stuff that doesn't tie into the larger story but embodies a memorable experience. Noticing an NPC drunkard being thrown out of a tavern and yelling slurred curses back at the barkeep is an example of fluff. A clocktower that makes you stop and gape in awe at its size and ornate gilding is an example of fluff.

What are the choices offered to the player? Is he deciding between killing human simpletons or orc simpletons? between a "Shortsword +1" or a "Handaxe +1"? Most of the player's choices should be more meaningful than that. For example:

Many of Baytown's militia are dissatisfied with their captain. Do you help them depose him? If you do, will some of the militia fight against you? Are they acceptable casualties? You might have to face their families afterward. Will the next captain be better than the first? Will the town mayor support the action? If he does so only because he fears the militia, your relations with him may be strained (no more quests or other help from him).

You've discovered an epic weapon which belonged to a great hero of the city Stoneridge. By removing the weapon from his bones, you have upset the hero's spirit. As long as the weapon is parted from the hero's tomb, his angry spirit haunts the city. Stoneridge citizens are angry with you for dishonoring their hero and causing the haunting. Do you return the weapon, despite its great stats? Do you abandon the town, ignoring the NPCs' troubles and the complaints of other players that some of the Stoneridge merchants are charging higher prices to people of your faction and/or guild? Do you seek out the ghost, and make a compact that allows you to keep the weapon if you'll use it to follow in the hero's footsteps as long as you possess it (such as keeping the city's surrounding population of bandits down to a particular level, perhaps with the aid of friends)?

NPCs, places, and objects should have as much depth as possible. For each NPC of Mass Effect, Bioware has a character bible; a compilation of character histories, connections, views, quirks, etc. I would do the same for MMO characters. And I would spend every waking hour between other tasks expanding the dialogue trees of the NPCs. For Endwar, Ubisoft is creating and recording a ridiculous amount of dialogue for NPCs, so that each NPC really feels like a character and not just a caricature, a painted face. Dialogue trees require time for careful creation, but not a lot of programming. Adding dialogue is a smart use of time for writers during the game's polishing phase, provided not every line is translated into a voiceover.

A feeling of ownership goes a long way toward heightening a player's appreciation of the story. Especially in American culture, we love to be reminded of and learn what separates us from other individuals.

I've heard people talk about good dev-written stories, like those in Halo or Neverwinter Nights, but their enthusiasm for those stories pales in comparison to their enthusiasm when sharing personal stories. The Sims offers individually unique stories through AI dynamics. Individual stories in MMOs more often result from social dynamics between players; like how one's guild decided to tackle a raid. The fact that MMOs already have dynamics leading to individual stories suggests that the genre has tremendous potential, considering the actual gameplay is presently so static and linear.

Depth is an important factor here. There are differences and then there are significant differences. Titles shouldn't be handed out like consolation prizes. "Epic" armor shouldn't decorate every long-time player, or be unheard of in a player's first months of play (think of Diablo 2's rare, set, or unique items).

The pinnacle of individuality in narrative is personal relevance. We each have a particular sense of humor, particular interests, particular perspectives and viewpoints, particular aesthetic tastes, and particular desires and favored roles during gameplay. You can't reach all people, but a good game makes players notice when they've been reached. When most players can agree on an optimal skill combination or group composition, then you're deafeating personal involvement to an extent. When players can go on forever in friendly debates about which skills, classes, and combinations are the best, then you've made those preferences personal... and made those choices more rewarding, those stories more interesting.

What is a story? It's not just a chaotic amalgam of choices and experiences. It's also how those choices and experiences are placed into an order, into a context, and the meaning we draw from them.

Part of what makes something a story is the feeling that it's leading somewhere.

I'm a huge fan of open worlds in games. There should be some direction, but that direction should be fluid. Water from a mountaintop must flow downhill, but there are countless paths the river might take. Ideally, developers should try to design story possibilities similar to river path possibilities. Rivers follow the paths of least resistance, but they also break through barriers and carve their own paths. It makes sense to encourage players down particular avenues, but allow them to stray from the paved roads. Skill reassignment, ala Star Wars: Galaxies, is an example of allowing the player freedom to take unusual routes (less-than-optimal skill combinations) while also preventing the player from hitting a dead end (not being able to recover from poor choices).

Our ability to predict is based on trends in past experiences. Facilitating the sharing of stories between players is important to this end. But be careful not to make all player-stories too similar.

Another component of stories is the knowledge that certain events and circumstances led to the present situation.

NPC commentary on player choices is one means of encouraging the player to reflect. Inter-faction conflict is easy. Class-only quests are easy. But how about NPCs reacting to player gear? Afterall, you'd think an orc wearing a skull for a helmet and a fetish on his belt might get a rise out of some homely elves in a small village (though big city merchants might not care). How about real difficulty in making up for offenses? Allowing player's to switch sides after killing hundreds of the enemy's faction might please some, but just as many would be pleased by the believeability of real NPC grudges and reputation.

Also, devs can promote certain judgements over others through NPC reactions. Most films and novels state or imply certain lessons or ideas, without beating the audience over the head with them (a lot of people complain about didactic storytelling these days, but they consume it all the time without realizing it). Present opposing viewpoints through opposing NPCs or factions, if you want; but encouraging the player to really think deeply about what's going on in the gameworld can, if done well, immerse the player and arouse character empathy. It's also the most necessary step toward establishing games in society as more than mere child's play.

Speaking of judgements... Part of what individualizes a story, what makes a story our own, is which experiences we value, which we seek out and which we avoid, which choices we savor and which we regret, etc.

Moving screenshots in-game is one means of encouraging players to qualify experiences. One player can invite another into his or her home and use the in-game pictures to share some of the best parts of his or her own personal story. Among other benefits, reminding players of their story highlights also reminds them why they play the game (improves player retention).

Perhaps the most important element of any story is organization. How are separate events and objects connected? How we categorize things affects how we perceive and interpret them. The heart of a story, its meaning and impact, is largely a result of organization.

This goes back to what I said under "Dynamics" about players needing to connect the dots, to feel that their many small adventures are truly connected to one grand adventure, one life as it is developing and exploring. Fluff is good, but there should be more meaningful content than fluff.

Helping the player see the big picture is probably tied closely with developer's own ability to remember the big picture during the many months or years of development. The developer will intuitively impress his own perception onto the game, so it's probably smart to plan continual reminders of the game's central themes and conflicts in which all players will ultimately be involved.

In Star Wars: Galaxies, I identified my character more with his skills in creature-handling and range survival than with his participation in the Galactic Civil War (he fought for the Empire, of course). I thought of him more as a lone wanderer and explorer than as a soldier in the world's grand conflict, so the majority of my game experiences were filtered through that lens. It's good to have a variety of players with different playstyles in the same gameworld (some soldiers, some guilds, some loners, etc.), but the developer needs to remain aware of all the possibilities the game allows so that players can be prodded out of stale repetition and overly harsh avenues.

You may have noticed me talking about the player finding his or her story, rather than creating it. The dev work that this article proposes concerns storytelling, but it's storytelling in a different way than films or novels. It's similar to how we "find" ourselves in life as we age and mature. The developer creates and controls the potential experiences and the choices that face the player. The player's involvement is more in choosing than in creation (which isn't to downplay the potential value of user-created content, but that's a whole other issue).

Please feel free to respond to only the one or two parts of this long rant that you read.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Two Worlds, one trashcan

Alright, so it's not that bad, but I'm definitely more than a little disappointed with this one.

I picked it up this morning and have played it just a few hours, so this review's about initial impressions. But if a game doesn't grab you within a few hours, to hell with it, right? I'm not going to try to be completely comprehensive, but I'll give a lot.

THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES cutscenes. That's right. You have to wait to play the game. Sure, Oblivion had an intro movie as well, but Bethesda's was decent quality (superb quality, once you're watching the fly-over around the Imperial City while the music rises to a heroic melody). This intro wasn't worth watching.

It's open-world, so you can wander wherever you please, just like in Oblivion.

But, unlike Oblivion, Two Worlds doesn't adapt creature levels to the player's level. That's a step in the right direction, allowing for EQ-style nasty surprises and adrenaline rushes. Unfortunately, the combat system, which I'll get into in a minute, prevents many truly tense moments.

Two Worlds isn't afraid to surprise you with numbers. Hiking up to a small settlement, I found a small dwarf. Dwarves are good guys, right? Wrong! By the time I realized the little guy wasn't walking up just to talk to me, he had 6 or 7 buddies with him. Did the seven dwarves put me in my grave? No, but it was a fun surprise.

The combat system is less than stellar.

Oh, it looks nice. One of the reasons I bought the game was the motion-captured combat animations. Combined with a good combat system, those really would have been a big deal. Unfortunately, melee combat is pretty lackluster.

You press one button to swing your weapon (the same way every time, though pressing the button more than once results in a set series of swings) and press another button to jump backward (only backward). Parrying is a passive skill, as is blocking, and neither seem to have an animation (though I keep hoping I'm just missing those animations by some crazy odds). I suppose that this is offset somewhat by the lack of weapon specialization, encouraging the player to change weapons (each with its own animations) frequently.

But mostly, this game must depend on magic. I always start these games with a brutish warrior character, so I haven't explored the magic system yet. I've used a Fire Wall spell, which wasn't bad -- unlike Diablo 2's Fire Wall spell, it acts more as a hard barrier than a way to roast multiple enemies at a time. I also use a basic Heal spell and Fireball.

They did come up with a cool spell augmentation system using cards. You can collect so many augmentations cards (reduced mana requirement, increased power, etc.) at a time. You're then free to assign the cards to whichever spells you want, and re-assign them later. So, for example, I chose to apply both my cards to the Heal spell, thereby increasingly its effectiveness considerably, while leaving the other spells as they were.

There's no death penalty beyond merely appearing away from where you were. I haven't tested the NPC-wizard's memory yet to see if he recognizes the guy he killed for breaking into his chest and stealing his stuff just 2 feet in front of his face (that's right, the game let me browse the chest's content at my leisure while the NPC merely waited for me to finish).

Oh yeah, and don't be surprised if combat's really only difficult fighting a lot of enemies at once. Bears are absolutely ridiculous. I swing, swing, swing... it begins to rear back, so I hit the "leap back" button... he swings and misses... I swing, swing, swing... etc. It's really that easy. I never get hit. I haven't found an enemy that's much harder than that yet, when alone (I'm playing on Medium difficulty).

If there's any justice in this world, lightning will strike the writers down for truly awful dialogue. You know those players in MMOs who think roleplay is a simple matter of throwing in a bunch of "thee"s and "thou"s? Apparently, those are the folks who wrote this game's story.

In fairness, some of the blame lies with the poor voice-acting. If you ever want to hear genuine Middle English, or even Old English, let me know and I can direct you to a university professor who does it well. Enunciating poetic contractions as if you were reading them from a dictionary only makes the attempts at Medieval conversation that much more unbearable. Surely, script writers don't all sound like nerds and can occasionally perform their own dialogue, at least?

I'm not far enough into the game to know how the story plays out, but it hasn't really grabbed me yet. To be completely honest, I've started skipping past a lot of the dialogue by mashing the "A" button.

Conversations are repeated verbatim... not just from one conversation with Bill to the next, but Joe and Bob give you the same lines.

I knew it wasn't as good as Oblivion's before I bought it, so I really wasn't expecting stellar graphics. But I'm surprised by how dry and uninteresting the graphics really are. Perhaps it's somehow related to German aesthetics that I don't understand, because Gothic had a similar style, as I recall.

Beyond that, though, sometimes I run into something that really bugs me. I walk under an arch, and it feels separate from the landscape somehow. Either it's an art direction problem or a problem with object borders, but it feels like I'm walking through a model rather than a world.

Like I said, the cards of the magic system was a cool idea. For all it's faults, the melee combat system does encourage the player to find a rhythm and adapt slightly to each particular weapon (jabbing and slashing with a spear feels different than swinging an axe).

More than anything, the little attraction I have for the game is for its retro appeal. The inventory interface, the potions and pause gameplay, the rustic feel... it reminds me of tabletop D&D somewhat. If you miss the good ole days, maybe it'll spark something.

Don't buy Two Worlds expecting an experience similar to Oblivion. I knew they would be considerably different, but I had no idea how different. Just because you enjoyed Oblivion, that does not mean you'll enjoy Two Worlds. Rent it. I'm sure some people will really dig it, but I'm definitely not one of those people.

Hopefully, it will last me just long enough to trade it in for Medal of Honor: Airborne in a couple weeks.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

20-hit vs 2-hit battles

I finally have access to the internet again. It's nice that Liepzig's conference happened to coincide with my away-time, because there was a little gaming news to come back to.

IGN posted a preview of Viking: Battle for Asgard, a single-player game in which the hero leads armies in siege warfare. The part that most interests me is this:

"In the large battles Scrin's job is less about directing his forces (although that is part of his job) as it as about being in the right place to change the course of the battle. "

In most MMOs I've played, combat tends to lean more toward strategy than action. Worthwhile battles are more likely to involve 15-20 actions, or 10+ "turns", than merely striking the enemy one or two times with your weapon and moving on to the next enemy. Many long-time MMO gamers probably prefer that style, though WoW seemed to prove the wide appeal of faster-paced combat.

Two-hit kills
MMO developers don't have to choose either/or. It might prove very fun to mix the traditional models of player-vs-foe combat with the sort of player-vs-group combat suggested in the quote above. In EQ2, my most enjoyable battles tended to be those in which I was outnumbered, sometimes even by enemies which would have been easy one-by-one. Those battles still involved multiple rounds per enemy, but they hint at the possibilities. Either way, one-on-one or many-on-one, there's considerable room for strategy, but different kinds of strategy.

Viking's "change the course of the battle" gameplay is just one way in which player-vs-group combat could be taken beyond old MMO models. It could make for some interesting raids, in particular. MMOs in general could be more engaging if the pacing varied more.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Don't widen the kiddie pool

Looks like I'll be able to get an article up afterall. =)

Everywhere you look, there's an article about some developer or publisher saying we need to widen the pool of gamers. They're right. Video games have nowhere near the mass appeal of movies.

Ok, so we don't really "need" to expand the audience. I mean, hey, the game industry already makes more money than the film and music industries! But the moneygrubbers are never satisfied... and, more importantly, it's always nice being able to share. I'd like to see a day when I could talk to my parents about video games and know that they share my enthusiasm, like they might with a movie. The social stigmas and gaming illiteracy are significant problems. Not many of us are content to wait until every living generation was raised on video games.

However, in order to widen the pool, we don't have to get rid of the deep end and turn the whole thing into a kiddie pool. Short-and-cheap isn't the end-all of attracting new people to the gaming world.

The fantasy of casual games
Nearly everyone in this industry seems to be suggesting that the only games that attract non-gamers into the fold are "casual" games; games like Bejeweled or Flow. Those are great games. But, quite simply, it's ridiculous to believe that these represent the future of gaming and the only viable gateway games.

For one, these people are simply ignoring history. Video games started with casual games. Such games have always been around. You know what? My dad has played Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Yet he wasn't sucked into gaming, and can't even fathom people of the Baby-Boomer generation considering video games as adult entertainment. The sort of video games he does enjoy? Basically, video versions of non-video games: solitaire, chess, pinball, etc. Even those are rare enjoyments, and a form of entertainment he would never even consider purchasing. He plays them because they came with Windows or because I put the games on his computer (honestly, I can't remember ever seeing him playing the pinball game I installed on his computer, though he does enjoy pinball).

So if treating these potential gamers like idiots, as if anything more than 3 buttons on the TV remote or microwave is too much for them, isn't the best way to attract them, then what is? Here are some basic guidelines:

These people grew up playing boardgames and sports with rules a hell of a lot more complex than most video games. The whole game doesn't have to be simple and easy. However, the entry does have to be simple and quick. Many non-gamers are strongly biased against video games as time-worthy entertainment, so avoid a big learning curve and get to the point quickly.

Quickly means more than simple and intuitive controls. It means the heart of gameplay must be summed up in the first five minutes (a rule, incidentally, that I would apply to games for any audience). The player should have full clarity on his or her primary goals, challenges, and tools. Depth can be added as the game continues, as was well-accomplished in Diablo 2, but you have mere moments to impress the non-gamer into continuing his or her first steps into gaming.

Does the game have any connection at all with the non-gamer's past experiences? When trying to coax someone into anything new, gaming or not, it helps to relate the experience to something he or she is already familiar with.

Baby-Boomers grew up with intellectual games. They watched TV gameshows that tested knowledge of the real world. They played chess and checkers, Monopoly and Clue. Sure, maybe your Myst-like game has some challenging puzzles, but can the player share his success half so easily or well as when he completes a crossword or search-a-word puzzle (games which don't cost even a third of the price, by the way)?

It's no wonder many Baby-Boomers can't connect with depthful adventure games; look at the settings! Folks of my parents' generation grew up with manners, order, and respect for authority; concepts like duty and the sacred. Believe it or not, not everyone's interested in "sticking it to the Man". To them, "rugged individualism" didn't mean saying to hell with everybody else; it meant stubborn determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Movies of the 1950s didn't lack blood and on-screen violence because movie directors were incapable of producing fake blood; they were that way because of aesthetic values and goals which Baby-Boomers still search for in entertainment.

Many non-gamers think of video games as something a kid does alone in front of a TV. The games they grew up with, the games they respect, are games about sharing experiences.

Baby-Boomers, in particular, come from a more community-focused culture than those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s. Competition wasn't about beating your opponent down and taunting him with "lol, you suck!" or rubbing your score in someone's face. They had winners and losers (often, in a stronger form than we're used to), but they laughed together and were not so personally divided during the heat of gameplay.

Co-op gameplay is a great path even for non-gamers other than the older generation. Someone is infinitely more likely to try a new passtime if he or she can do it together with you... if it's an experience you can share, but not an experience in which you the trained expert are going at quarter-speed with the hopeless amateur. And, as I've written elsewhere, co-op doesn't have to take the form of two equals. Offer depthful roles, but also offer simpler-but-valuable support roles.

Co-op, competitive, or otherwise. However you do it, being able to share your experiences is absolutely pivotal to any form of entertainment.

Games are only beginning to explore real drama (as opposed to melodrama) and have hardly approached deeper meanings. If you want to see the day when games are taken as seriously as movies, then make games that are as serious as movies.

Going back the Baby-Boomers, they didn't grow up on all this "to each his own" philosophy and "you pick the meaning" style of storytelling. They grew up with certainty, and a recognition of wisdom and experience outside one's self. The stories they respond to involve concrete messages.

It's true, games are more tightly censored than other media. But let's be honest, it's still possible to create depthful settings and stories in ways that those censors can swallow. How? Look back to those old black-and-white films. You can tackle themes concerning sex and violence without explicitly showing the sex and violence. You can say whatever you want to say if you're smart enough (and humble enough) to phrase the message in the right way.

The majority of the top-grossing films in the history of American cinema have been films with strong, certain, and obvious messages. Through similar storytelling, developers can reach veteran gamers and non-gamers alike. Video games are suited toward a different method of storytelling, but are capable of at least equal depth and cultural influence.

Anyway, so that's my rant about this "casual games" craze. The people who aren't buying Frogger-style games right now won't be buying the next generation of Frogger-style games either. Attracting new gamers isn't just about simplicity, ease, and a complete lack of time investment. Non-gamers aren't primitives. The key to their hearts isn't through primitive games.

The two upcoming games with the highest likelihood of attracting non-gamers into the fold are Will Wright's Spore and Peter Molyneux's Fable 2 (even if it is on a gamer console, it will at least grab non-gamer media attention and maybe some gaming visitors).

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I'm headed out of town tomorrow, and probably won't be back for about two weeks. I may get access to a computer every now and then, but I certainly won't be posting here or elsewhere as much as I usually do. So don't expect more than a few blogs in the next couple weeks. Sorry. =/

Warsong for Warcraft

If you're not already aware, I'm a songwriter/composer, among other things.

Folks who know me personally associate me with music more than any other talent. But I'm also an introvert who dislikes a lot of attention, so my literally hundreds of songs usually just get stashed into a list of recorded memories as I move on to composing new ones. I'm also clumsy (supposedly a trait of my autism), so my performances are inconsistent in quality; sometimes, my fingers just don't want to move and my voice doesn't want to work. As a result, I'll probably start selling some of my songs at some point, but that hasn't happened yet.

Anyway, it occurred to me that one of my songs could act as a fitting tribute to the upcoming Warcraft movie.

I compose in many different styles (usually some sort of rock), and my lyrics cover many different subjects. I have a handful of fantasy-themed songs. I have one from the perspective of a haunting ghost, one from the perspective of a vampire, one about an undead mercenary... and one that just happens to fit the basic theme and mood of the Warcraft lore. It's called "A Season for War".

Now, let me preface this by saying that I do very little according to common conventions, and my music is no different. When I say "fantasy-themed songs", many people probably think of bands like Blind Guardian; bands that sing in an operatic or chant style, that use Medieval instruments or note progressions. In short, most fantasy-themed songs are by bands acting like they're part of a fantasy setting themselves.

Think of my fantasy songs as being more in line with Led Zepplin's fantasy songs (like "The Battle for Evermore" or "Misty Mountain Hop", which are based on LOTR). They're variants of my usual rock style. No gimmicks with my voice. No wild sounds running through a synthesizer. Just straight-up rock 'n' roll, but with lyrics that paint an impossible picture.

Anyway, I'd probably try to pitch this song to the Warcraft film's producers for a place in the film's soundtrack, but they should probably stick with a symphony orchestra for that sort of film.

My cheap, home-made recording can be found here. It's recorded on my acoustic, because that's all I have with me at the moment, and the singing could be better; but oh well. I'll probably re-record it in a month or two, when I'm not living in an apartment and can get loud comfortably.

I've included the lyrics below. Whether you think it rocks or you think it's crap, I'd appreciate feedback either way.

A Season for War

can you see? can you hear?
this is a season for war
everything lying still
wondering what the silence is for
a calm rises
where's that wind the precedes the storm?

feel it rise, feel it fall
breathing like hungry dog
will it strike in the night?
or tear the mighty down in a fog?
i'm dreaming
the howling of a ghostly throng

run if you want to
the wardrums will find you
still reeling from the last season of war

it was told in the tales
of the elders now we scorn
it would come once again
to break the fragile peace that was born
from their loss
life out of the ash of war

first the drums from the hills
then the glare of fiery skies
pushing on like a rage
callous to the fearful and dying
what flies now
over the heads of this wraithen horde?

smoke on the horizon
light shine on the writhing
still reeling from the last season of war


not a spear, not a sword
isn't taken up in hand
we will fight, we will hold!
as the very stones of this land
O Fortune! lead me to the tallest horns

we march through the Never
speak these names forever
keep screaming to the last season of war

Monday, August 06, 2007

As go the testers...

... so goes the game. Who your testers are can be a powerful determinant of how your game turns out.

Difficulty is an obvious way in which feedback can be greatly skewed by the demography of testers. Take Battle for Middle Earth: 2, for example. If all of EA's testers for the game were avid gamers and RTS fans, like me, then EA would have heard that the "Brutal" computer intelligence is too easy. But if non-gamer folks like my dad had tested the game, they might have said that "Medium" AI is hard as hell.

User interface and pacing are other elements of a game in which the demography of testers can have a huge impact.

So what about the testers of MMO betas?

Developers like SOE and Areae have spoken of reaching out to new audiences, to folks who have never played an MMO or even an online game. That's a pretty common goal these days. But how can they get such audiences involved in the testing process? If their testers are from the usual crop of MMO gamers, then their feedback will be skewed in favor of traditional gamers.

Think about it. How are beta openings usually advertised? In my experience, it's through gaming-news sites, gaming news-magazines, and emails to veteran gamers. None of those reach the audiences they seem to be aiming for.

What about advertisements on non-gaming sites, like Yahoo's homepage, or casual sites, like MSN's game zone? Do you really think just a picture a two or three lines of text is enough to coax non-gamers into trying your MMO? I don't.

My guess?
For advertising the final product and possibly for final-phase testing, mainstream non-gamer news seems like the best bet for these developers. Somehow, their publishers need to buy interview time on TV. Forget the newspapers; they've been losing customers ever since the internet emerged onto the scene, and those who still read a newspaper nearly always watch TV news as well. Don't just place 1-minute commercials. Interviews would offer more bang for you buck, since that would be more conducive to getting the point across that your game isn't just for usual gamers.

You'll probably need to augment the usual testing methods with payed representatives; more like with single-player games. Afterall, you're not just looking for non-gamers; you're looking for non-gamers who care enough to put up with an unpolished game and care enough to offer thoughtful feedback. The fact that it's "a free game" isn't enough to convince many of these folks to aid testing. Remember when you're targetting older folks that people get more set in their ways with age. It takes more for them to pay your concept the time of day.

A more unusual way for both advertising and tester-finding would be to set up computer stations with the game in supermarkets and convenience stores. The fact that it would be such an oddity is the hook. The sight's strangeness would cause many non-gamer shoppers to be insatiably curious. Those with a little time on their hands can watch the game's representative play while that rep engages the shoppers in conversation (ideally, not all game-related) to explain and peak their interest. The rep can then hand out flyers with the website and appropriate information to interested shoppers, perhaps even with the beta codes.

MMOs targeted more toward existent gamers have a different challenge. How can they limit their testers to the intended audience?

Why a developer would want to limit its intended audience might not be obvious. Afterall, don't you want to reach as many people as possible?

I'll talk more in-depth about knowing your audience in my next blog, but the basic idea is that every game feature both adds and removes potential players. For some features, this is obvious (FPS-style vs turn-based, HD graphics vs more widely accessible graphics, etc.).

So, imagine that you're trying to create a Warhammer-style game, which focuses on Realm-vs-Realm warfare and grisly humor. The game might attract many gamers who are not interested in either of those features -- even many gamers who are opposed to those basic concepts -- but who join the beta and stay in beta because they're presently without any fun MMO and your game is the closest thing to fun they have. They might even be common sights on your forums, because it's someplace to voice their opinions and desires for MMOs in general. And they might love some of your game's features enough that they'll tolerate the others.

The "closet thing to fun" bit is worth repeating. Just because McDonald's is the #1 fast-food restaurant doesn't mean the majority of their customers are thrilled with the food (though, personally, I love their McNuggets, regular cheeseburgers, and chocolate shakes). A lot of people go there because, for the price and location, there's no place better. People might flock to your game's beta because it's conveniently timed and located (advertised on the right site, or a quick-and-easy download). They might even join your game's testing because a friend is also testing. If they can hang out with a friend in your game, the game itself might not have to mean much at all to the them.

Include in your testing sign-up form stuff like "Which of these features interests you?" and somehow automatically monitor how each person's answers match up to his or her feedback. That way, if someone like me, who enjoys more FPS-style combat, criticizes your game's turn-based combat system, you'll have some context that may or may not color my criticism. If a lot of testers call for more active combat, you'll know how many are the FPS-desirers.

It's a tricky business. Tweaking your game during the testing phase to people outside your ideal audience might actually increase your potential playerbase. You might discover that an unexpected crowd is interested in a particular feature of your game, so making a mild shift toward that crowd's usual fare results in more people buying your game. But on the other hand, a lot of your testers may be folks who are willing to play-test your game, but not willing to buy your game. God help you if you tweak your game for a portion of your testers only to finally realize they were a part of the test-only group. =/

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Sadly, IGN's recent interview with Paul Sams doesn't leave me with much hope for another Diablo game in the next year. As he said, we'll get one eventually, but he sure didn't make it sound like a Diablo game is anywhere close to imminent. Maybe in 2009?

I guess that's ok, though, since Hellgate: London is coming out soon, and there seem to be a lot of other decent games coming out between this fall and next. Maybe Blizzard will surprise me just as those are wearing off.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


It's sad how, no matter how many times I see release dates pushed back and no matter how often I say the dates advertised are utterly meaningless, there are always a few that I make the mistake of believing anyway.

The Two Worlds release date has been pushed back again, to August 21st.

I actually believed Grand Theft Auto 4's, too. Now, I'm thinking that one was just like Alan Wake last year: the first date was only offered to help Microsoft advertise the 360.

These dates aren't mistakes. They're lies. The developers and publishers know how difficult it is to predict the release date more than a month or two in advance, yet they advertise baseless dates anyway. It's not just bad marketing. It's selfish and immoral.

One thing I really despise is when people pretend business is somehow separate from the rest of life when it comes to morality (ethics, if you prefer). If you intentionally mislead someone at home or you intentionally mislead someone for business, it's a wicked act either way. Grow up. Treat your customers with the respect of neighbors and friends.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Free-to-play... that's good, right?

I don't have much to say on this, because I haven't had much experience with these sort of games. I just wanted to lay out there why I'm still a little wary of "free-to-play" MMOs.

When I read discussions among developers about pricing models, there are two main points made in approval of free-to-play games:
  • If the game is free, many more people will try the game. If only a small percentage of those players purchase additional content, it can still add up to a lot of money. 3% of 1,000,000 players purchasing micro-transactions can be more profitable than 100% of 100,000 players paying subscriptions.
  • Why limit how much the player can spend? $15 per month is good, but many players would spend more than that through accumulated micro-transactions.
In short, the movement behind "free" games isn't about service to the community. It's not about helping gamers. It's about bringing in more dollars.

That's fine, of course, when the games truly are enjoyable without the additional content purchases. I just have my doubts about the free experience being enough in many games.

Some games will accomplish that, but I bet many others won't. At best, they'll end up like my EQ experience following the Luclin expansion launch. I didn't buy the expansion, but my groupmates and guildmates did. It didn't bother me terribly when I found out that the graphical upgrade of Luclin meant we weren't even seeing the same colors (armors and gear looked completely different to me than to my groupmates). It did bother me when I couldn't stay with my group because they could travel by the spires and I couldn't.

Models like Flagship is offering for Hellgate: London may represent a sort of middle-ground.

Anyway, I'm not crying Doomsday. I'm just explaining how this free-to-play movement might not be all it's cracked up to be.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

PaP (Player-among-Players)

Tipa over at West Karana got me thinking about the relationship between PvE and PvP. Like I said there, I think the best designs smartly combine the two. You can read my full comment there if you're interested.

But she also got me thinking that there's another type content that I'm a little surprised doesn't have its own term. It's a vice of mine that I enjoy making up terms and definitions, so here's a new term that may aid future discussions.

Or it will just make me look like "a sad little king on a sad little hill". 10 points to the person who can identify that quote! ;)

I made up the term as I was trying to describe one of my most memorable MMO experiences, something from Star Wars: Galaxies. In SWG, my ranger was able to slowly crawl through a lair of narglatches (like red-scaled lions with some serious bloodlust). I reached the very bottom before they finally saw me and chased me out (killed me too, I think). It sounds simple, but the whole thing lasted about 20-30 minutes. It was a purely PvE experience, but it was also an experience which was mine alone.

It was something personal, individual; which is why I say it was also PaP content; Player-among-Players.

To say an experience is personal is to compare it with the experiences of others, to reference the community. Hence, it's a way of defining your place among that community.

Competition isn't the only way that sharing the game with other players enhances our gameplay experience. One can only be unique if there are others to compare to. And comparisons are not always about thoughts like, "I'm better than you". That's usually a quantitative difference. There are also qualitative differences. One person is blonde while another is brunette. One person is Japanese while another is Chinese. One girl smells like flowers and another smells like onions.

These differences are important because we identify ourselves by them, and others identify us by them. PaP content is about enabling that sense of self. It's about moving beyond mere archetypes and creating a personal space in the virtual society. At its deepest, it's about taking players from "What is my character? Well, he's an orc shaman." to "Who is my character? Well, where to begin...?"

Professional blogging?

What do you think it would take to make blogging into a profession?

Recently, GameTrailers interviewed the managers of three popular blogging sites -- Kotaku, Destructoid, and Joystiq -- sites which seem to be for-profit and employ multiple people each.

They look to me like they're basically just news sites with a casual tone. They hunt down news just like reporters, perform interviews, write editorials, etc. They just don't pretend toward that objectivity nonsense. Yes, nonsense; better to just make your biases clear and try to present the opposing side's case fairly.

Is it possible to make a living off blogging without being news-oriented?

I don't mean blogs that are completely bereft of news. I mean blogs that focus on original ideas, philosophy, commentary and reviews.

There is a non-gaming periodical I like called First Things (mainly aimed at orthodox Catholics and conservative Christians, focused on social issues). It has thrived on that sort of content, but it's primarily a printed publication. In Western cultures, as in all literate cultures, there tends to be a greater respect for ideas when they're written down. Internet publications are more easily altered than paper-and-ink-based print, so I think their level of popular respect lies somewhere between books/newspapers and spoken language.

Can periodicals (under which I'd include blogs) have a chance at being financially self-supporting when they are based mostly in philosophy and opinion, and they are published solely on the internet?

I mean, hey, a job that I can do from a laptop at the beach or on my own back porch? Count me in! =)

On a related note, the summary for an upcoming AGC presentation notes: "A recent study revealed that 76% of Americans trust the recommendations of their friends while only 11% trust what companies tell them."

Brent, this is something you need to mention in your AGC discussion. Bloggers represent a source of information that's further from "business" and closer to "friend" or "word on the street" than media like IGN, Gamespot, or PC Gamer. And gamers are probably more likely to develop a rapport with a blogger, since the writing is more casual and intimate.

Does that represent a strong incentive for publishers and developers to approach and even aid bloggers in some way?

AGC: schedule OPTIONS

Alright, so it took me an hour (or more), but I've browsed through all the panels and presentations being offered at this year's AGC and I've narrowed down the possibilities to the one's I'm interested in. There was stuff I was interested that I'm not including in this list, but these are the ones I'm going to need time to consider before choosing one over the other.

Yep, it's just like last year... for every presentation I'm going to, there are at least two I want to see but can't, due to the time overlap. I'm a Renaissance man, so I have a great interest in every little crevice of the industry, and I'd love to hear it all.

I wouldn't be surprised if you others who are going haven't really looked at the presentation summaries yet. But when you do, let me know which of these is on your lists, too.

Two other quick notes before I go on:
  • I chose according to the topics and summaries, not according to the hosts.
  • Brent and Michael, I hate you. ;) There are three presentations at the same time that I'd love to see, but they conflict with yours; and I'd really like to hear that one, too.
Without further ado, the list...


  • Everything I Needed to Know about Writing I Learned from Star Trek; Speaker: Evan Skolnick (Editorial Director, Vicarious Visions)
  • Designing for Everywhere; Speaker: Raph Koster (President, Areae, Inc.)

  • Familiarity breeds contempt: Building game stories that flow; Speaker: Patrick Redding (Narrative Designer/Game Designer, Ubisoft Montreal)
  • Form and Function: Designing MMOs for Emerging Technologies; Speaker: Shannon Posniewski (Director of Game Programming, Cryptic Studios), Stieg Hedlund (Perpetual Entertainment)

...and I should stop by afterward to say hi to Cindy Bowens, who did a great job as community manager for Sigil before the game was released.

  • Breaking the In-game / Out-of-game Barrier; Speaker: Todd Northcutt (GameSpy), Sean Flinn (GameSpy)
  • Identifying, Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers; Speaker: Troy Hewitt (Director, Community Relations, Flying Lab Software), EM Stock (Senior Community Manager, SOE Austin TX), Alan Crosby (Director, Global Community Relat, Sony Online Entertainment), Paul Della Bitta (Sr. Community Manager, Blizzard Entertainment), Charles Dane (Community Manager, CCP Games)
  • Increasing Enjoyment & Decreasing MMO Churn through Intrinsic Need Satisfaction; Speaker: Scott Rigby (President, Immersyve, Inc.)



  • Negotiating Mind Games; Speaker: Michael Gibson (Producer, Zapdramatic)

  • Dupes, Speed Hacks and Black Holes: How Players Cheat in MMOs.; Speaker: Tim Keating (Director of Development, Heatwave Interactive)
  • Emerging Legal Issues for Online Games; Speaker: S. Gregory Boyd (Attorney, Kenyon and Kenyon)
  • One World: Developing Story and Gameplay Together; Speaker: Matt Costello (Writer & Game Designer, Polar Productions)
  • Who Are Your Customers, And How Will They Pay?; Speaker: Kevin Higgins (CEO, PayByCash)

  • Building MMOS is EASY...; Speaker: George Dolbier (Sr. IT Architect, IBM)
  • From One-off to Franchise - Finding the Holy Grail; Speaker: Flint Dille (Writer, Designer, Producer, Bureau of Film & Games)
  • Gameplay Metrics for a Better Tomorrow; Speaker: Darius Kazemi (President, Orbus Gameworks)
  • The Zen of Online Game Design; Speaker: Damion Schubert (Lead Combat Designer, BioWare Corp.)


  • Combining Conventional MMO Gameplay with a Mini-game Mindset; Speaker: Tim Holt (Oregon State University), Peter Smith (Research Faculty, University of Central Florida)
  • Startup Lessons from Recent Online Games; Speaker: Daniel James (CEO, Three Rings), Anthony Castoro (President and Founder, Heatwave Interactive), Raph Koster (President, Areae, Inc.), Joe Ybarra (VP Product Development, Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment), Nabeel Hyatt (Founder, CEO)
  • The Big Board Debate!; Speaker: EM Stock (Senior Community Manager, SOE Austin TX), Paul Della Bitta (Sr. Community Manager, Blizzard Entertainment), Chris Mancil (Senior Community Manager, Vivendi Games), Chris Launius (Lead Community Manager, Perpetual Entertainment), Cindy Bowens (Consultant, Seashadow Consulting), Troy Hewitt (Director, Community Relations, Flying Lab Software)
  • Writing, the BioWare Way; Speaker: Drew Kapyshyn (Principal Writer, BioWare), Mike Laidlaw (Lead Writer, BioWare), Mac Walters (Game Designer/Writer, BioWare Corp.)


  • Creating a New Age of VO in Games; Speaker: DB COOPER (Voice Actor,, Patrick Fraley (Voice Talent, Teacher)
  • The 4 Most Important Emotions of Game Design; Speaker: Nicole Lazzaro
  • The New Kids on the Social Networking Block; Speaker: Kathleen Craig (Producer, Millions of Us, Millions of Us), Michael Steele (VP/Evangelist, Emergent Game Technologies), Ron Meiners (Community Manager, Multiverse Network)
  • What Do I Do Now? Narrative Devices for Guiding Players; Speaker: Chris Bateman (Managing Director, International Hobo Ltd)

  • Literate Gaming: How We Can and Must Do Better at Writing for Games; Speaker: Austin Grossman (Writer)
  • Truly Original Melodies For Game Music: Use Your Head To Escape Your Head; Speaker: Gerard Marino (composer, G-Musique)
  • Where are the Biggest Online Gaming Opportunities?; Speaker: Matt Firor (Consultant, Ultra Mega Games), Mark Jacobs (VP EA, Studio GM EA Mythic, EA Mythic), John Smedley (President, Sony Online Entertainment), Erik Bethke (CEO, GoPets, Ltd.), Raph Koster (President, Areae, Inc.)

There it is. It's killing me how badly I want to see more than one at a time. That last set is a perfect example. I'm a composer/songwriter, so I'd love to hear Marino's lecture, but Grossman's could be invaluable, too... and the third lecture might help point me to a job. Gah!

Anyway, let me know what wets your whistle.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Crafting reboot: Part Two (at last!)

Yes, I've finally tracked back around to my crafting series. This article will focus on harvesting. The next will focus on actual crafts.

As PixieStyx suggested today, harvesting in MMOs is currently nothing more than a time-sink. You might as well ask us to trim our lawns by plucking blades of grass one-by-one.

But there's hope! Let's not ditch harvesting completely. It could be completely refigured to make it more engaging.

Maybe the crafter just has to remain within the resource area for a particular amount of time, after which a pop-up window automatically offers the player so much of the surrounding resource. Players would have the option of disabling these pop-ups, if they were not interesting in harvesting.

The catch is that nearby creatures would attack the player, forcing him to either fight the creatures or flee from the resource area. These creatures may just be wandering and passing through, or they might be protective of the resource area. Withstanding particularly brutal onslaughts might be rewarded with higher-quality resources.

King of the hill
With advances in model interactions (attacks that physically move enemies, like knockback attacks in City of Heroes), we have new possibilities.

When I was little, my grandpa's yard had a big mound of dirt with which my brother, my cousin and I would play king-of-the-hill. The mound was just big enough for one of us, so one would try to stay on top while the others tried to push or pull the "king" off the mound and seize the mound for themselves. A scenario similar to this might be fun in an MMO.

There might be no damage dealt to either party in this scenario. Only skills of displacement (push, pull, knockback, levitate, create a slippery surface, etc.) and counter-displacement (making you more difficult to move) are permitted. The player might be temporarily given a full palette of such skills for the duration of the mini-game.

You play the game against NPCs and, separately, against other players. You each try to be the king of the hill. Every set amount of time you dominate the "hill" (the time might be 3 seconds or it might be 10 seconds), you are awarded so many units of the surrounding resource. Particularly skillful feats might be awarded with higher-quality resources.

And for low-stress players?
Personally, I prefer FPS-style action in most games, including MMOs. But I can respect gamers who prefer games with very little pressure, and I think they have a valuable place in MMO communities. So can we also create a harvesting option for them?

Bejeweled was successful enough that they made a sequel. Even I love that game, and it involves no more pressure than knitting. Something very similar could be constructed as a harvesting option.

Bejeweled is basically about shifting objects in a puzzle-type way to combine those objects into clumps. Harvesting could take the form of a mini-game in which players shift resource-objects to form harvest-worthy clumps. And as Bejeweled rewards players for particularly large clumps (a series of 3 or more jewels), this harvesting game could reward large clumps by transforming them into a higher-quality harvest. Connect 3 resource-objects and you get tier-1 ore. Connect 4 resource-objects and you get tier-2 ore. And so on, up to tier-3 or tier-4. Higher quality ore results in improved stats for crafted objects, thereby rewarding skill in a low-tension manner.

The mini-game would take the form of a pop-up window, allowing the player to enjoy the mini-game without being removed from the surrounding gameworld. The player could still notice other players moving around him or her, and could still chat with other players as he or she plays the harvesting game.

Multiple paths
Ideally, I'd include all three of those scenarios in the same game. Giving players options is a winning situation. One of the main reasons games like Oblivion, Deus Ex, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Battlefront sold so well is that they allowed for multiple playstyles; and not just for different types of players... for the same player to experience the same content in a different way, sometimes just according to mood.

When I tackle actual crafting in the next part of this series, I'll see if I can come up with a variety of options for that, too.

AGC '07, and '06 reminiscing

Party on!
I registered today for this year's Austin Game Conference. I'll be there for the full three days, and I hope I'll get to meet up with some of my fellow bloggers during that time.

Brent and Michael will be involved in a panel on "alternative media" (like blogging sites), so be sure to check it out if you're there. I noticed that Raph and Damion Schubert are presenting.

I've got some friends in Austin, so maybe I can talk one of 'em into firing up the grill and treating you foreigners to a real Texas steak or brisquet. ;) I was born in New Orleans, but I've lived in Texas pretty much all my life. So I guess that makes me the host, even though I don't live in Austin.

I'll be bringing my guitar this time around (to Austin, not to the conference), so at least I can entertain you with my own mix of Southern rock and early 90's hair bands. Don't worry -- only upon request. ;) I'm bringing it just to play an Austin friend my new songs.

Actually, I'm a pretty reserved, laid-back kind of guy, so don't expect any wild events with me. I skipped the pub crawl last year because I knew I couldn't handle it. I drink a few times per year, but I generally avoid alcohol due to an almost total lack of body fat and a digestive problem with grains like barley and wheat. Still, I enjoy just sitting back with a few friends over some Heineken and talking. That's the Gulf Coast Southerner in me, I guess -- I can sit out on a patio or porch and talk the whole day long.

AGC 2006
I went to last year's because it was the only industry conference within my budget and the only one within a thousand miles of here. Really, it saddens me that the game industry hasn't grown much along the Gulf Coast, but at least Texas is blooming.

I really enjoyed last year's conference. I've still got all of my notes. I spent most of my time at the writers' conference (I'm not a programmer or artist, afterall), but I ventured into the MMO side when I could.

Mark Terrano of Hidden Path Entertainment gave the best presentation, in my opinion. He had a lot of insights into games in general. One of his more interesting ideas was about designing games for spectators, not just the gamers. Afterall, friends and family don't have to be able to play with you in order to heighten your gameplay experience; they just have to share your enthusiasm. Being able to share is an important element of any entertainment experience, and it doesn't have to take the form of multiplayer modes.

Tom Abernathy of Pandemic Studios, with help, hosted a great talk about comedy in games. What I got most out of that is the importance of timing in comedy and the difficulty of pitching a game centered in comedy to publishers. He also got me wondering about the possibility of a comedic sandbox... allowing players to create and find humorous situations not directly developed by the studio.

Damion of Bioware-Austin gave a good talk on why MMO developers like different elements of the model that keeps getting used over and over again. While I didn't agree with him on everything, he was right in saying people should try to understand the thought processes that resulted in the design models they want to abandon. He also had a good point about considering long and hard whether or not you're intended innovation is cost-effective. It might be awesome, but you probably won't have all the time (or money) in the world to get it realized and polished.

Monica Evans, a graduate student at the University of Texas, and Dean Terry, her professor, had a lot of interesting questions about online environments. Monica compared World of Warcraft to the big musicals that preceded more intimate dramas in the film industry.

Those are just a few of the talks I really enjoyed at last year's AGC. Really, there were only a couple talks I attended that were not very impressive.

This year
I'll post my attendance schedule for this year's AGC sometime in the coming weeks.

P.S. I'll be applying for jobs while I'm there. So if anyone's interested in offering an interview, I'd be more than happy to make time for it.