Friday, June 29, 2007

The seventh day

or otherwise titled...

How the sabbath relates to MMO design.

Human beings need a day of rest, and not just to recover our energy. Even if a person has wisely chosen a mode of labor that is fulfilling (and thereby refreshing), there's still something missing. When we have time and peace, then we are capable of a different kind of appreciation. The appreciation of the racecar driver speeding along at 100+mph is not the same as the spectator's experience, and that is not the same as either's appreciation when they go home and reflect on their experiences in moments of peaceful rest.

Peaceful reflection completes us in a way that is not matched by consideration on-the-go. It gives us a chance to see things only a relaxed mind unburdened by a lot of sensation can see, and a chance to tie together all of our experiences into a unified whole.

Every good game designer understands the importance of pacing. What pattern of pacing is encouraged or enforced should depend on the style and length of the game. If a particular FPS is almost exlusively about the action, then little downtime is best.

But subscription-based MMO, a game that's meant to last months for each player, seems more analogous to real life. Players should occasionally be encouraged to quietly reflect on past experiences and perceive it all as a unified journey.

One example, one which I've recommended a few times before, is to move screenshot perusal in-game.

Every MMO I play, I take a ton of screenshots. But I rarely think to look at the screenshots I've taken, because the games have forced me to view them from my desktop. If I'm not in the game and I happen to think of game memories, odds are that I'm going to just enter the game and hop back into the action. After a dozen MMOs, my experience has always been that my screenshots barely receive a glance until I've ended my subscription. Don't get me wrong, that's good too -- browsing memories months later has suckered me back into a game more than once. But retention is better than recovery.

In-game perusal can be tied into the particular game's genre, but it should take place in a quiet area, like player housing. If it's a fantasy game, you might allow the player to place one of many stones into a seeing pool, each stone corresponding to a screenshot; the camera swings behind the player and the screenshot is scaled to fit and revealed in the pool of water. If it's a sci-fi game, you might make it like a touchscreen menu on the character's wall by which he or she flips through thumbnails and chooses one to be maximized across the wall (or other large viewing space in-game).

I'm sure there are dozens of ways to remind players of game experiences, but the essential feature I'm trying to underscore here is a peaceful setting in which to reflect. Offer players the freedom to reflect when they feel like it, but encourage them to reflect... and not just in one brief moment before running off again to fight or trade.

P.S. A bit of trivia: The Christian sabbath, like the Jewish sabbath, actually begins on what we call Saturday, because the tradition asserts that one day ends and the next begins at sunset. That's why Catholics like myself sometimes go to Mass on Saturday evening, rather than Sunday morning (technically, it's already Sunday). Of course, most modern believers are less considerate of tradition in general, so it's not uncommon for the evening Mass to start before the sun goes down.

I don't know why I thought of this on a Friday, but I'm thinking 5 articles a week is probably enough anyway.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Gradual backstory

I've been toying with the idea of a system that would offer the player backstory options based on the player's previous actions. This way, the backstory would develop gradually over the course of weeks, or even months.

Honestly, I'm not sure yet if I like the idea myself, but it seems worth consideration. A good and individual backstory helps significantly to attach players to their characters. Blank slates, however, like the empty chat box in SWG, are just as likely to intimidate players as to help them. Even an experienced, professional writer will probably give you a questioning stare if you give him nothing more than a blank sheet of paper and say "write something." People generally need more guidance than that. So I've been thinking...

How can the developer guide players toward backstories that feel truly personal, but without expecting the players to write the stories themselves?

Backstory quests would be placed on the server, but not assigned to any particular NPC. The game would categorize player actions over time, and occcasionally offer the player a backstory quest (or other type of experience) related to those player actions.

For example, if the player demonstrates a fondness for bandits, an NPC might inquire if the player has any experience with police duty and (if the player confirms interest in the subject) offer that player a chance to retrace his law roots through some sort of quest.

Which NPCs can offer which backstory quests would be determined by relevance (a humble sailor's not likely to be familiar with your royal upbringing), but many NPCs would be capable of offering each such quest. That way, the player is likely to run into it, no matter which city or which part of town his adventure passes through.

The gist is: (1) the developer offers a quality backstory through NPC dialogue or similar content; (2) the player determines his or her own backstory options -- indirectly through natural gameplay choices, rather than being faced with a mess of stories at the character creation stage that the player may or may not be interested in at all; and (3) the player has the final say, accepting the screened and personalized story offered or holding out until the next story offering.

All of this, of course, isn't meant to exclude the possibility of the developer guiding players to stories which they write themselves. Certainly, more could be done toward that end.

And I've learned to expect admirable creativity from just about any person, given the right guidance and a little luck; even if that person is certain he or she is completely incapable. Years ago, I read a very interesting and inspiring book in which an elementary school teacher had his students write their own poems after reading famous, complex works (including Shakespeare)... poetry everyone thought only adults could truly appreciate. The results are astounding. As I'm sure anyone with children knows, "out of the mouths of babes..." doesn't just refer to faux paus. Some of these child-written poems are profound.

Anyway, that book is one reason I'm confident that MMO players are capable of writing good stories for their characters, if developers could only figure out how best to inspire them.

Group faction

Over in Cameron's blog on mindless killing, Potshot made an interesting comment:

I would love a bunch of NPCs to say, “well you three can pass, but not the Dwarf! He killed Arglebargle! Get ‘em boys!!”

Before reading that, I had never considered players with different faction standings being grouped and adventuring together. Of course, it seems so obvious now!

It's possible to introduce a new dynamic into gameplay: group influence on faction standing.

"No, it's alright. He's with me." That's basically the sort of feature I'm talking about. If your faction standing with the Freeport Guards sucks, they might still let you through the gate without any trouble if you're grouped with three or four players who have good standing with that faction. If your standing with them is really terrible or your groupmates have only neutral faction with the guards, then they'll still bar you from entering the city.

It could work both ways, of course. If your groupmates forgot to tell you that they killed a few of these guards last week, you might be in for a nasty surprise when the guards come after you as well.

There's a lot of gameplay that's made possible by this sort of system.

Perhaps you have very little chance of earning enough faction with the royal family to go where you want in the royal palace (possibly to reach a quest-related figure). If you can ingratiate yourself with the right NPC with some relationship to the royal family, you might be able to accomplish your goal indirectly. Perhaps you make a friend of a palace steward when you see him in the market square. Then you can walk with him back to the palace; the palace guards watch you suspiciously, but they don't say anything while you're with the steward.

That little adventure could be complicated in any number of ways. Perhaps the steward needs further convincing once you're inside the palace. Perhaps you need to leave the steward's company once inside to find what you need, then find the steward again or sneak past the guards (easier to do when they're focused on people entering). Maybe the steward changes his mind once he sees what you really came to the palace for, and he calls the guards.

Anyway, what else might be done with this system? How might you tweak it?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Revamp the reviews

I use game reviews frequently. First I check the general score, and then I read through to see why it was given that score. Odds are, by the time I read the review, I've already read or watched interviews, previews, and gameplay videos. I've already formed an impression of the game...I just want to see if there's anything I missed. Often enough, there's some insight that helps me make my buying decision.

Though the words are often helpful, the rating systems **suck**.

It's really easy to understand why. Ask any person to rate something with a number, 1 through 10, and they're certain to think of 1 as awful, 5 as mediocre, and 10 as excellent; or possibly 10 as awful and 1 as excellent. If 7 is mediocre in your review system, your system is plainly counterintuitive and likely to mislead some people; particularly people who are new to your site.

Explain your system however plainly... it's still counterintuitive and potentially misleading. Hell, ever readers who are accustomed to your screwy system probably can't help but be influenced subconsciously by the more common tradition, the system that everyone but reviewers accepts as good.

Why have a 1-10 scale if you'll never score a game below 5? It's a simple thing, but something that bugs me to no end.

Anyway, sometimes it seems to me that all of the sites I look to for reviews have a habit of a scoring things higher than they deserve. Right now, I prefer GameTrailers' video reviews to anything else, partially because they seem more critical than other sites.

Alts only

Some thoughts while considering "alt-itis". I'm glad that it happened to coincide with Damianov's "End Game" article, because I think the subjects are closely related.

Why is permadeath such a frightening prospect to most MMO gamers? Well, it's because permadeath is a real end to character progression, and character progression is first-and-foremost in your typical RPG; certainly in your typical MMORPG. Permadeath is a brick wall, whereas the sort of death usually found in MMOs is more of a speedbump.

It's a valid concern, but I wonder if character progression in MMOs could be reimagined so that it is both powerfully immersive (the player strongly associates with his or her character) and fleeting. Is it possible to design an MMO in which players expect to play one character for only twenty or thirty hours of gametime before starting the next character? Afterall, it seems most people have at least one alt, if not more.

Is it possible to create an MMO in which "alts" are king, and replay is essential?

In an arcade game like Pac-Man or Super Smash Bros., it's no big deal that one play-session is entirely unrelated to the last. But a sense of continuity seems to be an essential element of any RPG. So abandoning the traditional MMO model of prolonged character development would demand that continuity be provided in some other way.

There are two examples I can remember reading about.

In one MMO being developed about a year ago (I remember it changing its name at some point, but I can't remember either title), a generations system was proposed. The player's character had a limited lifespan, but each new character was a descendant of the last. Some skill affinities (representing childhood training) and objects (heirlooms) would pass on.

Trials of Ascension, on the other hand, advertised a system of delayed permadeath in which the player could die so many times (around 100) before being permanently buried. Rather than heirlooms, it allowed characters to sacrifice their last few lives to create an artifact (an item imbued with traits representing that character), which would be left to the world to be discovered but not passed on to any character. The mere mention of permadeath scared many potential players away. However, because the proposed world was dynamic and players could leave a meaningful impact on the world, there was a sense of continuity (theoretically, anyway; the game didn't make it to release).

Right now, I feel like Colonel Patterson in The Ghost and The Darkness...
Beaumont: "Did it work?"
Patterson: "Point of fact, it didn't. But I'm convinced the theory is sound."

I'm sure there are more ways to provide continuity than just these two, but player impact on the gameworld, in particular, seems to be a strong method.

If an MMO was designed for short character lifespans, would that mean the tradition of massive worlds must be abandoned? Afterall, any single character could not experience the same breadth of content. One can't walk the same length of road in a month as one could in three months. I don't think that necessarily means the world should be smaller, though.

In Deus Ex, a good example of a game designed for replayability, the player repeating the adventure could enjoy running through the same settings with different weapons, different skills, and making different dialogue/quest choices. That sort of system could work equally well in an MMO. In fact, EQ2 is a decent example, since I played many different race-class combinations in the city of Freeport and still had fun (though more of the quests could have been less linear).

The original EQ and WoW demonstrate the value of having a variety of starting locations. Even if a shorter-lived character can't trek as far, he or she can begin in a different place.

Also, shorter spans mean more teasers. The player might get a glimpse of unexplored area or quest shortly before the character's end, enticing him to work toward that content in the next life. Or the player might be thrilled by another player's skill or item. An alt-oriented game would not make the character feel like he is abandoning his investment when trying a new character.

What about depth of experience? A shorter lifespan could mean less room for character growth. But in real life, don't our limited lifespans add value to our achievements?

By combining a system of skill trees and skill drops/rewards, then placing some of those skills at the farthest edges of potential experience, the game could be a paradise for achievers and explorers alike. In a typical MMO, anyone can reach the highest skill levels with enough time and dedication. But place enough dynamics in a limited lifespan and it becomes truly a challenge to reach the highest goals. This can be done with items and other elements as well. A player might even prove that it was more skill than luck by repeating the feat.

The elite status of individual characters wouldn't last long (except in record, possibly in-game) as the players who find/achieve epic items, skills, or monsters would die, but player organizations could take on new meaning. A guild could adapt its goals to new discoveries as its member characters are constantly changing. Whole characters, and regiments of characters, could be designed specifically for epic goals. If an epic monster seems vulnerable to cold and shock, then the guild might solicit its members to develop characters with cold and shock prowess. In addition to traditional raiding, imagine guild endeavors that are weeks in the making and based on more elements. Perhaps the guild has gained knowledge of a particularly powerful cold spell scroll in some far off land. It might arrange to acquire it to aid in the monster assault... and the quest for the scroll, alone, might span more than one character life. Much could be done here to take raiding skill far beyond organization and execution.

Thirty hours (longer than most single-player games) should be enough time to satisfy player desires for individual character development. The main challenge here is probably just changing the expectations of veteran MMO gamers.

None of this is to suggest that the old system of one main, continuous character is a system that should be replaced. I just don't think it's the only viable way.

Monday, June 25, 2007

MMOs in general

These are some old thoughts that I guess I never really finished. Unfortunately, I don't remember where the comments and articles that I referred to are, so I don't have the links. I think I wrote this in response to an article by Neil Sorens on Gamasutra a month or two ago. Anyway (can you see where the site name came from?), here's my trail of random thoughts from long ago.

If you take anything from this, I hope it's an understanding that community is often not the main feature that attracts gamers to MMOs, contrary to popular belief.

I'm not a professional developer, but I am a gamer who considered MMOs his bread and butter through over a dozen such games since Everquest...until finally saying "to hell with these games" this past year. From that perspective, though I disagree with some of Sorens' key points, I believe parts of his article should be taken to heart.

The industry's current plethora of subscribers is not evidence of fun gameplay, as some seem to suggest. Blockbuster Entertainment thrives largely on renting out mediocre movies simply because its customers enjoy them more than what's on TV, not because its customers perceive these movies as better than mediocre. In the early years of SUVs, automobile buyers jumped at the opportunity to purchase a lot of unstable, gas-guzzling SUVs simply because they couldn't experience the same features in vehicles with better handling and gas mileage. In both cases, there are consumers who are enthusiastic in their praise of the mediocre products, but that doesn't mean most consumers aren't pining for better.

I agree with Sorens that many current MMO enthusiasts will be spending their money elsewhere as features particular to the genre (massive scope, heavily customizable and personal avatars, etc.) become more commonly available in other genres. I am just one of many gamers I know who were once head-over-heels in love with MMOs and have since abandoned the genre entirely. We abandoned it when we decided that its unique strengths no longer outweigh its obvious weaknesses. The basic nature of MMO combat systems did not appeal to me even in my first MMO experience, but other features were compelling enough to hold me (no, community was not among them, though seeing characters with unscripted actions and appearances was).

Most gamers I've known who enjoyed MMOs (for a time, if not still today) are fans of more active and complex games, including FPS and RTS games. They don't play MMOs to relax and unwind. They approach MMOs as they approach single-player RPGs, searching for exhilirating moments, though tolerating larger spans in between them (note that "tolerance" implies disapproval). While I am sure there is a considerable portion of gamers who enjoy MMOs for the low level of engagement necessary, it's indisputable that another significant portion consists of gamers who yearn for more engagement. Huxley, Darkfall, and other products are designed with such gamers in mind.

Are those of us who leave the genre being replaced by new subscribers? Certainly. The current model of MMOs will continue to be successful. But is the potential audience we represent any less profitable? I doubt it.

It's a pivotal question in this debate, so here's a reprint of my comment from Green's blog:

Diablo 2 does not generally classify as an MMO because it wasn't designed to make the avatar much more than just an instrument of power. It has as much chatting and grouping as EQ, but players don't define their avatars in the same ways and don't connect on the same roleplay level with those avatars. Hence, the online gameworld feels less like a virtual society than an online society, more between players than characters.

I think people underestimate the importance of (1) scope and (2) sandbox gameplay in MMOs. What first attracted me to the genre was the idea of such a huge world to explore and so many different paths I might take. Still today, that sort of gameplay is rarely available in single-player RPGs. Single-player RPGs tend to be much more constricted and limited in replay value.
In Neverwinter Nights, playing as a sorcerer is very different than playing as a fighter, but both start in the same place and are funneled into the same adventure. In EQ or WoW, playing a different character means experiencing a different setting and course. That doesn't only affect players who are interested in beginning again. It also means that one's character is more personal; not necessarily symbolic of the player's own identity, but intimately connected with the player is some way.

As Rich pointed out, Warcraft and other MMOs are full of players who solo and who group only when/because it serves self-interests. While I agree that community is very important to MMOs, that importance seems greatly overrated. If single-player RPGs regularly offered worlds that take several months to explore and the ability to shape one's own story, many MMO gamers would be playing those instead.

But I don't claim to know the demography. Without those elements being more separate, it's difficult to estimate what rough percentage of MMO gamers consider community the deciding factor as little as I do.

Consider this though: In non-gaming life, few people regularly submit themselves to boring activities just to be around friends. Generally, friends meet up around activities that provide mutual enjoyment. Enjoyment of the social setting may not be a person's focus during interaction (that is, the person's focusing on society itself), but it is still a necessary condition that usually precludes social engagement.

The MMO genre certainly still interests me. I write about it all the time, afterall, even though I haven't played one in many months. And there are many features I respect in current games. But, ultimately, I'm waiting for a new generation, because this generation bores me.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Directing attention in stories

There's an important difference between (1) all of the information a storyteller lays on the table and (2) the small range of information that the audience is able to instantly internalize and respond to. Placement is pivotal. If the author places the most vital information in the wrong place (effectively, in the background), the audience receives future information with false assumptions; they may even construct a flawed avenue of interpretation which they will follow to end, then wondering why the story's conclusion feels so unsatisfying.

In literature, the word's placement in the sentence, the placement of the sentence in the paragraph (and so on) influences focus. For example: "The mother placed the blanket gently on her daughter" versus "Gently, the mother placed the blanket on her daughter." By changing the placement of the word "gently", more attention is called to the word. In a paragraph, opening and closing statements tend to be the most remembered. The first and last lines of a story are absolutetly vital. And quotation marks usually denote action, rather than description (only), so they tend to receive more rapt attention.

In film, the camera usually decides the audience's focus. If Jack is talking while Bob is listening, Jack is the center of attention only as long as the camera stays on him. If the camera shifts to Bob during this scene, then the audience is encouraged to focus on Bob's reactions to what Jack is saying, rather than what specifically Jack is saying.

Body language, setting, background movement...these things can relay a lot of information; enough that their messages will sometime drown out dialogue. If the camera zooms in on a character's eyes as they stretch wide in terror or pain, any cooperative dialogue may be effectively silenced. If the character is off-center, any potentially relevant object in the center of the frame may distract from the character.

It is only in recent years that game stories have been written by professional writers, rather than programmers or artists (which isn't to suggest that a Renaissance man can't trump a specialist). So it's perhaps ironic that game writers have so commonly missed the narrative boundaries of their own medium. In a game story, the player's focus is typically on his or her own potential actions and involvement. The player is almost always the primary protagonist (intended or not).

As a player, if I'm watching a cinematic cutscene, I want to know how everything in that cutscene relates to my character and my choices. Most cinematics in games thus far have been largely unrelated to character choices. Developers have incorporated cinema as it was already known, rather than take limited elements of film to adapt its visual storytelling capacity to a new medium. If my choices have had no obvious effect on the events of a cutscene, then that cutscene is more a distraction from than a progression of my story-experience.

The player needn't be in absolute control of the story. In fact, the vast majority of popular stories (of any medium) involve the natural conflict between things in and things out of the protagonist's control. It is perhaps desireable that game audiences should experience this conflict more than they do currently. Gamers up until now have accepted a lack of story control as a perhaps-regretable but necessary trait of the story medium.

A better way
Anyway, it's something to consider. In my own experience, cinematics can be greatly appreciated even when they're not related to gameplay much at all. Diablo 2's sporadic movies and World of Warcraft's intro movie are good examples, but note the quality of those cinematics.

Generally speaking, I think cinematics are a poor method of storytelling in games, and zoom-in character conversations aren't much better. The medium is more rewarding of narratives that are less fixed and are experienced while the player still has full mobility (and capacity for actions in general, including combat skills). Not simple, I know, but such methods have a much greater affective impact on the player.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Escape without a mask

While I agree that escapism is a common appeal of RPGs, I don't think escape from reality happens to the extent that many seem to believe.

Knowledge and potential
Any role can be played only so well as it is understood. That's why actors do research. The actor tries to imagine what it would be like to be that other person, and then he acts the part as much as that character's personality happens to overlap with the actor's own personal capacity.

All personalities are far broader than can be witnessed in any single moment. Each personality includes the choices one makes and the choices one is capable of making. That's why good fiction writers know much more about their characters than the reader is shown. And that's why your college professor sees a different "you" than your mom, and her conception is different than your co-worker's, which is different than your boss's, and so on.

Different people and settings bring out different parts of your personality, and nobody will ever know you in entirety. That doesn't make you deceitful. Different individuals need and want different things from us. They have different senses of humor, so you tell different jokes. They have different problems, so you offer different kinds of advice and sympathy. One likes vulgarity; another likes pithy remarks. One person evokes your anger; another makes you laugh. No person will ever see every part of you because no person will ever witness you in every situation; and, on top of that, you're always changing and growing.

The choices involved in roleplay express real aspects of the player's personality. The actions my character performs are actions within the scope of my personality under the same set of conditions. And that last part's the kicker.

Conditions of personality
The only true escape comes when something about the setting creates parameters that are different from the real world.

In real life, many consider me a overly nice guy. I never lose my temper, never hurt someone's feelings intentionally (not even in retaliation), and I will go out of my way to help complete strangers -- all just because it's natural for me to care about every person I see face-to-face. But as a player in Neverwinter Nights, I didn't really care about any of the other characters. So I actually levelled up my character before even leaving town by brutally slaughtering every NPC who was of no use to me. Once, I even cheated an NPC out of his money, and then killed him. I was disappointed when the game wouldn't allow me to slaughter the child NPCs the same way.

The point is... Under this different set of parameters which the game presented (if not intentionally...Bioware probably wanted me to care about their NPCs), I was neutral evil. Under real parameters, I'm neutral good. Actual choices are far more important than potential in defining character. However, potentiality is a part of personality. The fact that I thought to slaughter all those NPCs while a friend who also had the game never killed an NPC needlessly demonstrates a difference between our personalities (perhaps only that it takes more for me to empathize with game characters than for my friend to). Even though those parameters are completely virtual, completely impossible in real life, they reveal a difference between what defines Aaron and what defines Jay.

Few player characters, if any, reflect nothing of the player's personality. And I'll go so far as to say that most player characters reveal quite a bit. What we're escaping from is pressures upon our personalities, not really from who we are.

Every artist is a psychologist in disguise. =)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The group and the individual

Player groupings should be separated by more than just numbers and organization. They can be designed for different types of encounters, different rewards, and different limitations. And by "different types", I don't mean different in the nominal way EQ2 has "Solo" and "Group" encounters.

Raiding in MMOs never seemed all that wonderful to me. I tried it a couple times and felt most of the time like I was being prodded through a guided tour.

In fact, that analogy works pretty well, because a raiding party in current MMOs is a group much more in the sense of a tour-group than of a militia. Sure, the individual players enjoy each other's company (ideally, anyway), but they're mostly concerned with individual goals (loot and/or xp). Guilds sometimes boast about having defeated a particularly tough enemy, and this represents a truly community-oriented goal (national honor -- i.e., patriotism); but they typically face that same enemy over and over for the sake of individual player progressions.

Goals in MMOs rarely lean more toward community benefits than individual benefits. If you dig deeply enough, of course, the line between self-serving acts and selfless acts is often hypothetical; one act serves both ways. But what concerns us here is the player's focus and intent.

True militia
I'm not arguing that traditional raiding should be abandoned entirely, but I am suggesting that the traditional reward system of "loot and xp always" is bland and primitive.

For years now, a common goal among MMO developers has been to make players feel more important to the gameworld. True militia gameplay is one means of accomplishing that. Instead of painting every player into a mercenary role, players may be allowed to join NPC causes and serve NPC factions in ways that position lore progression (story engagement) before all other goals. Star Wars: Galaxies seemed to prove the viability of this. In my SWG experience, players did take faction quests for the purpose of self-advancement, but it also was not uncommon for faction-bound players to engage faction enemies in combat for the sake of a cause or role-fulfillment. The game was certainly much more enjoyable for me because of my faction affiliation (Empire) and the call to eliminate any "Rebel scum" I might happen across or hear about.

A piece of the action
Many successful FPS games have cast the player as a soldier who will assuredly receive no rewards of loot, money, faction, or progression points. But the player doesn't mind, because he's in it for the action... and possibly (though I doubt it) for the story progression. If MMOs can't sell players on the idea that some encounters are rewarding enough through the action alone, then it seems that would make liars out of those who claim MMO combat is truly exhilirating. MMO veterans would have expectations that must be managed, of course, but those expectations may be changed.

Fame and glory
Does anyone really doubt that guilds (or other large groups of players) would still tackle ferociously tough monsters even without any promise of loot, wealth, or experience points? Bragging rights are a big deal. I remember an incredibly difficult cheat to unlock in Goldeneye N64 that required beating a level in a ridiculously short time. After players beat it, they didn't talk about how cool the unlocked cheat was; they talked about how hard it was to get and how skilled (and lucky) that made them.

Tie such communal victories in with the game's lore and dynamic events. Then, offer the group a lasting legacy. Legacies can be accomplished through a Hall of Heroes, library records, minstrel songs, and any number of other possibilities. If a legendary one-spawn creature is taken down, the developers can ask the guild for some visual figure that is representative of the group, then place a statue of that figure in a nearby village for the duration of the gameworld. In some cases, it may make sense to recognize the individuals within the group directly (like a list of names in a library record), but it's alright to reward the group as a whole instead.

Noble deeds
See the previous blog.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in MMOs that the only significant differences between solo gaming and group gaming are complimentary skills and chatting. Not so.

Solo gaming involves a freedom from many social pressures which affect how the player engages the game.

Players in a group generally try to stay together, watching the others and adjusting their pace to a comfortable compromise. A solo player can follow impulses to rush ahead or sneak as slowly as he wants to.

One of my favorite MMO experiences was ever-so-slowly sneaking up to and down through a cave full of narglatches (like nasty-tempered lions covered in red scales and spikes). My character must have spent at least 20-30 minutes crawling on his belly, stopping completely whenever a narglatch might notice me. I was down in the thick of their lair before I was finally discovered. That's an experience I couldn't have had with a group.

Soloing means much tighter control over one's gameplay experience. Everyone probably knows what it's like being talked into some dungeon crawl, quest, or loot run that you really were not all that interested in. Sometimes that's good. Sometimes, we need someone to push us into new, enjoyable experiences. But sometimes, perhaps just as often, we look back and think, "yep, I knew this would suck."

Tactics and strategy
Some expressions of this difference are obvious, but there's a lot to be explored here. For example, solo players must often be more attentive to their surroundings and careful with positioning (relative to the enemy) than groups. They're more vulnerable to surprise attacks. Positioning is something MMOs haven't adequately incorporated into gameplay (with notable exceptions). But if they did, it is certainly something that is realized very differently in solo gameplay ("I bet he can't see me on this cliff above him") than in group gameplay ("You three circle behind him, and I'll drive him to you").

In the interest of getting this posted today, I'll leave it at that. But I hope the general idea is clear. Developers may just continue debating which loot to give solo gamers, which loot to give small groups, and which loot to give raiding parties. But it makes more sense to me that large groups, small groups, and solo experiences generally represent different goals and settings...and should often involve reward systems that are fundamentally different (not just different in quantity or quality). Mercenary armies are feasible, but armies marching off to protect an allied people (for free) or hunting a dragon for eternal glory (and nothing else)...those sort of scenarios make more sense to me when considering large group gameplay.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Nobility and reward

Originally, this was part of a blog I'm writing concerning group gameplay versus individual gameplay. But it's become so long, I'm going to make this its own article.

The Three Amigos faced El Guapo to save the town, not to rob the thieves.

Current MMOs are more encouraging of mercenary alliances of convenience than of noble causes. In real life, individuals are often filled with a powerful sense of self-satisfaction when they recall memories of good deeds he or she has done, or when the deed's recipient smiles back appreciatively. If noble action can be so fulfilling in reality, then it could certainly be fulfilling in a game as well. There's a significant affectual difference between helping another person and helping an NPC, but each can be gratifying.

Sure, games regularly offer players opportunities for noble deeds, but there is always another form of reward (and usually not just one) that often seems to overshadow the player's good will. It might be only experience points, or loot, or faction that can be "cashed in" for something beside good favor. As I'm sure I've written somewhere before, I'd like to see rewards more separated: loot alone, xp alone, faction alone... and nobility alone.

Players could join organizations for the expressed purpose of noble deeds, perhaps even of a particular scope. And the appeal isn't limited to roleplay (enter the "virtual world vs game" debate =P ). These can be fun.

Those paladin pansies...
For example, a paladin might occasionally group with fellows of his order to keep an enemy population in check. In the upcoming MMO Darkfall, a dynamic spawning system allows a creature population to "migrate" after being overhunted in one area. Such a setting would be ideal for this sort of organization.

The paladin order could not only maintain safety on one particular border, but they might also perform reconaissance and travel from one area to the next hunting zombies or demonspawn. If developers allowed these creature populations to grow to burdensome levels if left unchecked, then player paladins might even receive encouragement from non-paladins! In this case, though there may be many types of rewards involved in the struggle at any given time, it is clear how such a system may keep an impression of noble action front-and-center.

Herbs on demand
Another possibility is an alchemical organization driven by NPC groups with alchemical needs. In fact, this provides a way to show how one altruistic organization might be bound to another.

Suppose that the undead, which the paladins attempt to keep in check, can have some negative effect on NPC villages that they come into contact with. The effect might be perpetual fear, illness, or might even be a plethora of maladies. The alchemical organization would then enter the village to obtain, create, and apply remedies (with visually perceptible effects) to the NPC population.

The paladin order might often be the messenger of need, calling upon the alchemical society after raids; or vis versa. There might even be circumstances in which the two organizations must work cooperatively for success. For instance, a stricken village might be extremely hard to cure as long as undead just outside its borders exert a psychic hold over the villagers (i.e., undead leaders must be slain to release the town from corruption). Or (in the opposite direction) the paladins might call on the alchemists to purify a holy pool which is a boon to paladin powers in the area, thereby strengthening the paladins against nearby undead.

In short, it is feasible for altruism to be its own reward at times in games (within the context of enjoying the act combat). It isn't necessary for grouping with other players to always involve a possibility of personal gain. Sometimes enjoyment come from feeling helpful and identifying one's self with a larger and nobler cause.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The WoW phenomenon

For well over a year now, everyone and their mother has been trying to figure out what made World of Warcraft take off like a rocket and dominate the market by such a ridiculous margin. The latest figures I've seen say they're at upwards of 800,000 subscribers now.

Well, against my better judgement, I'll throw in my own 2 cents.

WoW had a marketing advantage far beyond that of any other MMO game, with the possible exception being Middle Earth Online. Blizzard has the Midas touch.

They have not one, but three game franchises, spanning decades, with millions of faithful fans. Many of those fans would scoff at the mere idea of an MMO game, but others can't help but feel excited by anything Blizzard comes up with. Each of those fans has a word-of-mouth advertising effect (the strongest advertising that exists) on at least one or two other people (gamers and non-gamers), if not half-a-dozen or more.

Why can WoW bridge the gap between Western and Eastern gamers? One word: Starcraft. From what I understand, that game has its own TV channel(s) in South Korea. That's impressive by itself, but even moreso considering that it was a game designed in the West.

In some Asian countries, gaming is more mainstream than it is here. Game developers are actually recognized over there like celebrities. If I remember right, both Bill Roper and Raph Koster have said they've been stopped on the street in South Korea because gamers recognized their faces. That difference has important implications in MMOG marketing. If gaming is more mainstream, it's almost certainly more common for friends and family of the pre-gaming generations to be persuaded to try the game.

No matter how good a game's marketing, no matter how good the game, there's always a little luck involved. There are a couple of ways in which I think WoW sneaked out the door at just the right time.

For one, it emerged at a time when first generation MMO gamers were floundering. It seems almost universal that a gamer's first MMO is the sweetest MMO experience. Myself, I began with Everquest. That lasted around 9 months, and it seems to have become increasingly difficult with each new MMO I try (I've played or tested almost a dozen) to become absorbed in the game. We are gradually disillusioned, increasingly aware of design issues and the staleness of this genre. WoW was released around the time that many gamers like this (those who began with Everquest, Ultima Online, or Star Wars: Galaxies) felt homeless and desperately desired an MMO that they could invest more than a mere month or two in. While WoW has kept with the same stale formula in many ways, it's refreshing in others.

Perhaps just as importantly, WoW emerged as video games were becoming more mainstream in the West and major media outlets were looking for gaming news to share with the non-gaming public. These days, many major news networks cover the game industry in their technology sections, or even give gaming its own section. That's an invaluable avenue of advertising that previous MMOs did not have nearly as much access to. It used to be that only major articles written about games like Everquest sharply criticized the absorbitant amount of hours kids "wasted" on their computer. Now, the more sales WoW gathers, the more major news networks report on it...which means more WoW sales. Even people of the pre-gaming generations are beginning to wonder, "Nearly a million subscribers?! Maybe there's something to this 'virtual world' nonsense."

Of course, none of this is too suggest that the game's design doesn't deserve much, if not most, of the credit.

WoW may be the only MMO I've ever played that never made my computer's fans squeal, as if to scream "Please! It's too much!" The graphics are easy on computers, yet designed with a consistent and imaginative style. The art uses a broad palette of colors...meaning that it engages the eye more than traditional realism. The cartoonish style prevents gritty and frightening scenes from feeling too gritty or frightening for those who want a more relaxed, musing experience (i.e., a lot of people who rarely, if ever, play video games).

The pace of gameplay is quicker and less disjointed than in most MMOs. I remember thinking how ingenious it was that my orc warrior was encouraged to almost immediately move from one enemy to the next by the rage system. Players aren't nearly so bound to grouping as in most MMos. The feasibility of solo gameplay means the player is rarely stuck standing and waiting on groups to form and true gameplay to begin again. It's smart to offer the player downtime periodically. But if the player doesn't want downtime at the moment, then don't force it on him.

WoW had improved customization options in its skill system. In most MMOs, levelling up mean the player is given particular skills. WoW took the Diablo route of allowing players to improve old skills, rather than pick new skills, if they so choose. And one player of a class might use different skills than another, such as one warlock preferring a ranged minion while another warlock prefers a melee minion.

It's probably been a year since I played the game, but I'm sure there are plenty of other aspects of the game that are worthy of praise.


Yes, it's a good game. But no, it is not the epitome of all an MMO game should be. It annoys me to no end when I constantly see people pointing to WoW's phenomenal sales and concluding that any aspect of the game must be good. Circumstances surrounding WoW gave it a great running start, and further circumstances have facilitated its progress like with few other games of any genre.

But more importantly, the success of a whole product does not translate into success of any feature within that product. The game has sold well as a whole, not piece by piece. And some of its features might be perfect in combination with other WoW features, but terrible when placed in other combinations.

Financial investors understand this concept. At home, they have awesome HD-TVs with annoying control schemes, slick luxury cars with uncomfortable seats and holsters too small or large for their coffee mugs, and microwaves that can do anything but take a rocket-scientist to figure out. If you know how to explain it to them, you can get your investment money without having to clone WoW in every detail.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Routine and an illusion of fate

If any two philosophers would have been excellent game designers, they would be Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aristotle called something virtuous when it performed the purpose of its design well. A knife, for example, is virtuous if it cuts well. You could choose to use a knife as a hammer, but it probably wouldn't perform that function well. There are limitations inherent in the design, though few designs are absolutely limited. A knife may sometimes act as a pretty good flat-head screwdriver, for example.

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that there are three things any person must know in order to be happy and fulfilled: (1) he must know the world for what it is; (2) he must know his own place, his role, in the world's design; and (3) he must know how to fulfill that role through momentary actions. If a person does not know how to translate his knowledge of the role into definite actions, his ability to experience the joy of fulfillment is stunted.

On the other hand, nobody likes to feel like just a cog in the machine. In every MMO game I play (and I've played or tested almost a dozen now), I inevitably hear some players criticizing others for not knowing how to play a particular group role. If these criticisms were general, like asserting that a defender should be apt at protecting his allies, then I would agree. But they are more often suggestions that a very particular tactical blueprint should be followed without deviation; thereby ensuring, in combination with everyone else's particular blueprint, that the factory of combat produces the agreeable (if bland) result predicted.

For most gamers, fun is best achieved through a balance of predetermination and free will. What MMOs have shown me is that stale routines can lead to an illusion of predetermination and confinement.

Consider real warfare. A Roman swordsman knew what his initial actions must be in order to preserve the integrity of the group's strategy (a phalanx formation). In order for the formation to be effective, each soldier must move toward the enemy at an equal pace, maintaining a position in the battalion's order, until he the melee combat begins. But... once that combat begins, the soldier must respond to the spontaneous (though trained) actions of the enemy and to the progression of events surrounding his immediate opponent (like the allied soldier by his side falling to an enemy attack). Likewise, in modern warfare, the soldier has a general place in unit operations, but he must respond to spontaneous events in a fluid and often creative way (here, "creative" often means applying his training to an unfamiliar scenario).

If an encounter does not seem spontaneous in its unfolding, if the enemy does nothing that vaguely surprises the combatant, then the encounter leaves an impression of being fated, of unfolding as it was certain to unfold. Utter predictability acts as an adversary to a feeling of free will. If something always happens, then it must happen. This is a basic assumption of the empirical philosophy which popular culture has accepted from modern science.

The problem of the infamous "grind" isn't that the player must struggle through an endless series of encounters to grow and realize his or her goals. The problem is the predictability of these encounters, and the player's consequent impression that his actions were never truly his own, but rather just the fulfilling of an external plan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cinematic combat...Legend: Hand of God

If this game isn't one of the hottest topics in the industry a week from now, I'll be extremely disappointed:

Any developer interested in action-oriented games should be drooling over their Cinematic Combat System (CCS). Just watch the gameplay trailer:

The first time I watched that, I started out thinking "hey, it looks like someone's finally made a Diablo-clone worthy of its heritage" (Titan Quest has its merits, but its lack of what this game has was precisely its downfall in my eyes). But when I saw the fight with the ogre (or whatever that big fella is), my jaw dropped. That single mechanic will add inestimable appeal to the gameplay. Please, God, let this feature be adopted by the entire industry in the next couple years!

One thing their CCS demonstrates well is the importance of perceived impact in combat systems. If the enemy falls back when my fist never actually made contact, the thrill of the punch is lessened. Likewise, if I punch him and there's no visual reaction whatsoever; or if every attack elicits the same reaction. I've critized Hellgate: London over this same issue. In that case, the perception of impact was missing somewhat due to lackluster sound effects (I noticed in the Flagship's most recent trailers that all of their weapon-related sound effects lean toward high frequencies, which seems odd...considering that low frequencies offer the most powerful impressions of impact).

It's a bit unfortunate that the trailer for Legend: Hand of God is being released during the thick of hype for so many other games (The Darkness, Bioshock, etc.) and the presentation of Carmack's new graphics engine (which also looks, at a glance, like it may affect the entire industry). I hope those don't swallow up all the attention this game deserves.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The future of modeling?

By itself, that technology's awesome. I expect I'll be able to take excellent 3-D tours of half the major tourist attractions in the world 15 years from now. In addition, this seems to be a major step toward easier modeling of real objects.

If the human eye can discern an understanding of depth in 2-D representations, like photographs and paintings, then someone should be able to create software that does the same. We already have a rough ability to do this (apply the "sharpen" filter to a photograph half a dozen times and notice how it takes on a 3-D effect), though I'm not suggesting the invention of such software should be easy. Two-dimensional representations could be made three-dimensional.

If that can be accomplished to an acceptable degree of accuracy, think of how these two technologies could be combined! If software could accurately detect depth and distance in 2-D representations, and if those representations (now 3-D) could be linked into a combined model (similar to the products of Photosynth), then an entire real-world environment could be represented in a 3-D computer model by little more than taking a lot of photographs and processing them through the software.

The model would be almost entirely realistic (i.e., past the Uncanny Valley). No more trying to simulate the endless and unpredictable variety of textures, all of the minor flaws and eccentricities that give real objects believable character. The model of a house would have chipped paint in all the right places, settled supports in all the right places, windows with smudges, bricks with holes, and so on.

Of course, I realize that this technology won't come without significant hurdles. Even after it's accomplished, game developers would then have to figure out how to assign physics to the art which they didn't build piece-by-piece. They would have to go in after-the-fact to divide the art into sections for gameplay purposes. And that's just one hurdle.

Still, Photosynth seems to be an exciting development for game developers in particular. =)