Thursday, November 27, 2008

multiplayer stand-ins

Another aspect of Left 4 Dead which should be considered by all designers is the option for an AI stand-in during multiplayer.

Most gamers acknowledge that gaming takes a backseat to other things, including everyday distractions like phone calls. In most multiplayer games, gameplay cannot be paused; and when gameplay can be paused, at least one person is left sitting idly in boredom. Left 4 Dead allows a player to call an AI substitute, so others can go on playing.

It's not a perfect feature. Any AI is imperfect, and a substitution can mean someone is temporarily playing by himself. But I'd still recommend a similar feature for almost any multiplayer game (excluding MMOs).

I'm enjoying Thanksgiving out of town this week, but hopefully I'll be able to keep posting stuff here 'til I get back. My thanks to God for all our many blessings.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

a better roles model

Yes, roles model. That's not a typo.

MMOs and other multiplayer games could learn a great deal from Left 4 Dead, particularly in regard to combat roles. In Left 4 Dead, no person in the group is mysteriously regarded by all enemies as the tank, so all players have to keep an eye on each other.

"Grouping" hardly describes it. This is as close to real soldier camaraderie as I've ever experienced in a game. You have to constantly watch the backs of your buddies. They rely on you completely; they pay for your mistakes... not with minor injuries, but with their lives. You're sharing resources -- whoever needs a healthpack most gets it, regardless of who happens to be carrying one. You can only carry one at a time, so giving is always a sacrifice.

And perhaps that's the key component. More than any game to date, Left 4 Dead enables and encourages sacrifices for the sake of teammates. Sometimes you sacrifice pills or healthpacks. Sometimes you sacrifice your life.

I'm not stretching the truth. Among my friends in Left 4 Dead, it's not uncommon to see true sacrifices -- selfless acceptance of hardship for the sake of another. One person will speak into his headset, "Don't come get me", because he knows the rest of us stand a better chance of surviving if we don't chase his captured and pinned character into the middle of an unmanageable horde. Death means he is only a spectator for minutes at a time... possily a long time. Sometimes the player healing another with his healthpack is down to half-health himself, but he's chosen to help the person with the most need.

It's honestly pretty touching, and a phenomenon all game developers should take note of. With the unlikeliest of settings, a zombie infestation, a game has managed to contribute a deep and lasting lesson to gamers. People can learn more about being a soldier from playing Left 4 Dead than from most war games, and even many documentaries.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Agency Q&A: part 1

A while back, David kindly asked if I wanted to join him in interviewing the SOE Seattle team behind The Agency.

Of course, I immediately said "hell yes!" and sent him half-a-dozen questions. Then I realized that, not only was David going to use all of my questions, but he also used over a dozen questions of his own! Much to my surprise, SOE was willing to answer most or all of them, so this interview will be in multiple parts.

Anyway, here's the first part of the Q&A with Matt Staroscik, Game Designer and Lead Writer for The Agency.

(1) The Agency seems to break new ground for MMOs in many ways. But what aspects of the game might feel familiar to veteran MMO gamers?

"The persistent world, interlocking quests, team play and other social elements of The Agency will be pretty familiar to MMO veterans. Players will also work on building influence in the game world, another genre staple... There is also a crafting system, though the way you research and build things will be different in The Agency from other games. (You’ll be directing a team of Operatives, collectible NPCs, who do the work for you.)"

(2) You've cited 007 films as one inspiration for the game's setting and characters. What are some other key inspirations?

"The Bourne movies are up there, and so are the TV shows Alias and Chuck. Even Get Smart and Austin Powers provide some good reference for us. The Agency isn’t a comedy, but those properties show spies and supervillains with elaborate, global operations, and fancy headquarters to match their ambitions. We are all about that!"

(3) Many current MMOs are dependant on good social interaction within the game which is normally conducted via keyboard or voice chat. Has this made you consider shipping the game with a keyboard/headset?

"Nothing has been decided, but we do know that PC players already have keyboards, and if they enjoy voice comms, they’ve probably got a headset as well. Recently the Wireless Keypad and official Bluetooth Headset were announced for the PS3 and I’m sure these peripherals will lead to even more of our potential players being voice equipped from the beginning."

(4) PC & PS3 release but are you considering releasing on other platforms in the future? Will the PC & PS3 launch on the same date?

"The Agency will be exclusive to the PC and PS3, and we intend to launch both versions simultaneously.

I have high hopes that we will find some ways to put Agency-related content on the PSP someday. But please, don’t take that as a leak, it’s just me thinking out loud. We’re far too busy with The Agency to pursue any kind of spinoffs right now. "

(5) Are any of the team regular MMO players? Do you have any current favorites, current or past?

"Many of the team members, especially designers and developers, are MMO players. Walk around the office at lunch and you’ll see people logged in to lots of different games. We’re always talking about the latest betas and other industry news, too. It’s not all MMOs here, though. There are many different tastes represented among the staff, including board and card games, and I think that diversity is good for us.

Me? Well, one of the reasons I am so happy to be working on The Agency is that I honestly don’t care for the traditional EQ/WOW type of MMO. Oh, I’ve tried, but when you find a 10 second FPS respawn timer to be a long wait, as I do... the pace of most MMOs is unappealing.

I spend most of my time on single-player shooters or rapid-respawn multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2. Planetside is a good game, and I dabble in it, but have never been a serious player. I also log a lot of time in puzzle and strategy games on my PSP and DS Lite.

The combination of features in The Agency really makes it a game I want to play and I think that a lot of other shooter fans will come to feel the same way."

(6) What do you consider the main feature of any MMO that players look for & expect to see well done?

"Most players won’t see stability as a feature, but if the zones always come crashing down, it doesn’t matter how great the game is. You never think about stability until you don’t have it. Game balance is the same way. No one wants to feel the sting of the nerf bat.

Aside from that low-level stuff, the social tools in any MMO need to be well developed. You need to be massively multiplayer, not moderately multiplayer. That means good chat features, friends lists, and guilds. I think we should all demand good matchmaking services, too."

Thanks to Staroscik, and to Osbon, for the interview opportunity.

The Agency has been on my watch list for a long time now. Like Staroscik, the thing I like least about MMOs is the combat, but the RPG elements are still important to me. The game seems to have a nice blend of action, intrigue, and humor. And I'm a big fan of espionage stories, both tongue-in-cheek stories like Bond and more serious ones like the novels of Frederick Forsyth. Operatives sound fun.

And no, I haven't figured out yet if I'll choose ParaGON or U.N.I.T.E. The sniper rifle and shotgun have equal appeal to me.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Is game music still lagging behind film music, in general?

The work of composer John Williams in film always acts in a support role yet is always memorable. In Jurassic Park, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and countless other films, Williams' music manages to captivate movie goers without distracting them from the visuals and dialogue. We remember his music, but we remember the story too.

There are definitely inherent differences between films and games in the ability to predict audience experiences (timing, order, focus, etc). But some differences are not inherent.

Williams' scores are among the most memorable in film history largely because of the method he uses: leitmotifs. He ties musical themes to central characters, to recurring scenarios (such as Indiana Jones action scenes) and recurring images. How often do game composers attach recurring themes to story elements?

I've mentioned before that lessons are more deeply ingrained and more easily recalled when they are attached to strong emotions. Likewise, characters, events, and environments can be made more memorable by giving them their own musical themes.

Music can also associate things. If a cave and a mine share a musical theme, then the player will perceive them as variations of one environment. If a brother and sister appear separately in a game but share one musical theme, then family traits become emphasized over individual characteristics.

Conversely, music can call attention to differences. Attach a dark musical theme to a villain, activated by a sphere around the character, and attention will be dramatically focused on that villain wherever he or she walks. The player might be in a bright and cheerful town when the music takes a dark turn, pointing out the villain's presence in a powerful way. Another example is to give two similar-looking pubs vastly different music. Despite looking basically alike, the player will perceive them in wholly different ways if one has a slow, sad violin and the other a ragtime piano.

Leitmotifs are not always the best choice for game composers, but they should be in every composer's toolbox.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

board and card games

I've played a lot of them. In a family with five kids and twice that many close cousins, playing lots of board and card games is to be expected.

So I thought I'd run through a handful and briefly describe what features made each of them fun. The idea was brought on by Brian's ongoing community project.

Monopoly is, first and foremost, a great mix of luck and skill... with heavy emphasis on luck. Not only are your dice rolls and card draws random, but the order and timing of those rolls and draws matter as well. Monopoly also allows for personal strategy. Some people like the utilities or railroads, some the expensive properties, others the cheaper properties while are easier to build on. The game encourages verbal interaction through trading and rent payments. Though I'd guess that most Monopoly players have only played the original version, it's significant that the gameboard and cards can be tailored to different cities, universities, and other sources of pride.

Since Sorry!, many boardgames have used its basic premise of one player sending another back to an earlier position. Making one player the cause of another's setback is a great way to encourage social interaction. It's more fun when some reciprocity is all but assured. Later games, like TriBond, spuns the concept of setbacks so that one player could forcibly switch places with another. This was a great idea, because it means no player ever falls back so far that he or she no longer has a chance at winning. It's generally not fun staying in a game when you know you can't win.

Yes, it's a word game, but the basic gameplay is applicable beyond language. Scrabble is about building something out of randomly distributed parts. There are strategic elements, but it's mostly about seeing potential in a mess (Boggle plays off the same concept). Ironically, finding potential order in a mess often feels like creativity, even if all you've done is replicated words everyone already knows. Minor creativity is fun for all, but more heavily creative gameplay (like in Balderdash) has a smaller audience.

The war simulation game Risk emphasizes strategy. Unlike Chess or other strategy games of old, it involves enough chance to ensure variation between games. The beauty of Risk is how dependent gameplay is on individual players. Four or five different personalities with adaptive strategies mix to create a unique playthrough every time. Like Carcassonne, the player must make a strategic decision every turn without the benefit of knowing what the gameboard will look like the next time it's his or her turn.

The king of poker games is like Monopoly in that it's a strong blend of strategy and luck, but it's defining feature is bluffing. More than any other game, Five-Card Draw encourages players to hide their luck from other players (and, of course, reveal it once the round is over). Betting allows players to select their own levels of risk, and one player can pressure another into greater risk. Other games involve not knowing opponents' strategies, but Draw involves not knowing the opponents' resources as well.

100% luck, yet still fun. Each player gets seven cards blind (face-down). Each turn, you flip over your cards one at a time until you have a poker hand that beats the player before you. Turns continue until all cards are turned over. What makes this game great is the open betting. There can be as many as a dozen or more turns of betting, and each time you can bet however much you want... the others must match the bet or fold. The pots can be enormous, you're betting purely on faith in luck, and the game is full of intense anxiety as the cards are overturned.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

control standards?

Should consoles have standards, hard or soft, for which buttons on their controllers do what?

You don't have to play many games or play often to be annoyed by disparity in controls. One game uses Left Trigger to aim and the next uses it to direct squad mates. One game uses the Y button to jump, another B, another Left Bumper. It would sure make life easier for gamers, especially occasional gamers, if we could count on some familiarity in controls.

By the way, this is one of the reasons occasional gamers get discouraged from becoming regular gamers. Every game's controls are a challenge to learn, because little is familiar.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mirror Edge 2D webgame

There's a great 2D Flash version of Mirror's Edge over at Borne Games. You can immediately play through the beta at that link and offer any feedback to the developers. The full flash version will apparently be free.

This first level (surprisingly long) is fluid and fun, though I wonder why the developers chose the "S" and "/" keys for jumping, rather than the Spacebar, which seems more standard and is certainly more natural to me.

Publishers are definitely experimenting a lot these days with internet marketing. This Flash game does a great job of mimicking the Mirror Edge experience I had in the Xbox Live demo. The game encourages replay to try for the fastest, smoothest possible run. It's about momentum, and few games are.

I'm undecided on the 360 version of Mirror's Edge. Because the demo is only a training level, the experience is broken up. I can only guess that further levels have fewer story pauses and are more open to individual choices. The longer it lets me run, jump, and slide in one continuous experience, the more I enjoy it.

AI pushbacks

Something I've wanted to see in games for a long time is dynamic enemy AI with enough sophistication to shape a gameworld without overly frustrating players.

If AI characters each have a variety of goals and a variety of behaviors for achieving those goals, then gameplay can continually surprise and each player can have unique experiences to share. But even when games include such variety, they rarely enable AI to regain what the player has fought for. Player progress is rarely tentative.

In Saints Row and Saints Row 2, players seek to conquer the city neighborhood-by-neighborhood. After taking a neighborhood, there's usually a pushback. Whatever gang used to own that neighborhood tries to take it back. But no dynamics are involved in the event. Enemy AI don't move into the neighborhood while the player is away, but simply appear there instantaneously. Because it's a completely scripted event, there are no surprises in the fight to take back that territory. A fixed number of gang leaders of fixed strength and effect appear in fixed locations, which the player must kill to secure a zone with fixed borders. Judging from experience, each territory can only have one pushback.

LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 involves more genuine pushbacks, in its War of the Ring mode. The setting is war, and wars can be lost. This is unlike a typical adventure game, in which it's assumed the player will win the war and only battles can be lost. In War of the Ring (similar to the boardgame Risk), strategic AI decisions are fairly predictable, but territory geography and limited resources combine to make simultaneous offense and defense difficult. To be strong enough to seize new territories, the player must sometimes leave old territories vulnerable to attack. Also, each territory awards particular benefits for ownership. These dynamics supplement relatively static AI to result in dynamic pushbacks. The player's ability to predict the place, time, and manner of pushbacks is limited. A pushback in a particular territory can be repeated multiple times, and the enemy's invasions can be devastating.

Now, The Godfather 2 gets its turn: "The Godfather 2 is dynamic and reactive, families react with complex "countermoves" based on the players actions and leveraging very human behaviors like revenge and coercion." Though the game includes a strategic map, The Don's View (shown above), "revenge and coercion" sound like ground-level interactions. I'm anxious to see how this turns out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

American football

American football is a unique game.

I can think of no other game in which players necessarily alternate between strategy and tactics at such a regular pace. Gameplay is equally balanced between action and turn-taking. Each turn begins with the two teams selecting competing strategies. That's not unique, but the need to then execute those strategies and tactically adapt is. Each turn element, strategy and tactics, occurs in only seconds.

I've played nearly all American sports in my lifetime. Other games, like basketball and soccer, have playbooks of sorts. But particular strategies come into play far less often in those sports. General strategies dominate. Only football relies so heavily on the playbook and so regularly alternates between strategy and tactics.

I'm pointing this out to show an opportunity for game designers. How might this style of gameplay be made into a new game?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Left 4 Dead demo

I tried the Left 4 Dead demo on my Xbox 360 last night. Wow! This game rocks.

Many features make it great, but none so much as the unpredictability introduced by the dynamic spawning. Brian and I played the demo for an hour or two last night, and every playthrough felt fresh... despite the environment and goal being exactly the same each time. You never know when or where the next attack will come, how many zombies will come at you, or what types of monsters may join them.

Once, we all died and so started back at the safe point. When we got to the area where before we had been overwhelmed with a huge horde of zombies, this time that area was completely barren. It was eerie. I remember Brian saying, "I've got a bad feeling about this". The areas just beyond were also empty. Then, of course, we got smacked by a couple dozen zombies.

Where you are when particularly nasty strikes come and what condition your team is in from previous fighting can make all the difference in the world. How many directions can enemies come from? Zombies can come from directions you just cleared (which the environment design makes believable, by the way).

Is there a defensible position (like a corner, in a train, or on top of a car) nearby? At one point, we were progressing through a subway train when a Tank appeared outside. When the Tank repeatedly slammed against the side of the train, leaped on and off the roof, I was certain he was too big to get inside. I was wrong. And yes, we all died.

Even reloading is a powerful dynamic in this game. In most FPS games, like Halo, enemies move slowly enough and there are few enough of them that you can run and dodge while reloading to avoid damage. In Left 4 Dead, enemies are quick and they often come in hordes. At exactly what moment you must reload your shotgun or assault rife is sometimes the difference between life and death.

The game adapts to how well or poorly you're doing. Sometimes you'll find extra weapons, ammo, health packs and pain pills. Other times, you'll be sorely disappointed. You can select a degree of difficulty at the beginning, but the game adjusts dynamically within that selected difficulty range.

Brian and I spent the majority of our time trying the demo on Expert difficulty. I don't know how many times we tried to beat that level, but we never reached the safe point (the level's end). On the last try, I was almost within sight of the end. I was the last survivor. All I had to do was run up a small flight of stairs and sprint a short distance to the safe room. But when I entered the stairwell, lo and behold, there was a Hunter waiting for me on the steps. I got a couple shots off before it lunged, but not enough to stop it from making a meal of me. Such is Left 4 Dead.

And that's just the demo: 2 levels and one multiplayer mode. I haven't tried Versus mode, but it sounds great. The full game includes 4-player co-op, 8-player online battles, split-screen, and 20 maps.

Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics. The variety and unpredictability is the most important aspect of this game. Left 4 Dead has quickly moved to the top of my must-buy list.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

military's AI in MMOs

The U.S. military is about to use MMOs as a testing ground for their latest human-simulation AI.

According to the Army's Director of Research and Laboratory Management, these AI characters "think independently, have emotions and speak in slang". In other words, these are far beyond the bots you might be accustomed to seeing in MMOs. These bots don't just grind. They will seem to converse with players.

There's no mention of the extent to which these Army bots will partake in gameplay. The focus is clearly on simulating social intelligence and personality, rather than combat prowess. I'm sure our military has impressive AI for that as well.

Unfortunately, I doubt the Army's test results and strategies will be shared with the game industry, though I could be wrong. If our military perceives such AI has having only training value, then they might share. But if they believe such AI has intelligence and counter-intelligence applications, as I expect, then they will guard their methods against enemy insights.

So don't expect this to lead to gaming progress.

But do feel free to make a mini-game out of identifying impostors! You'll be helping our troops in the process.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

exponential design

Someone emailed me a link to a flash program for creating virtual snowflakes. If you've ever made a paper snowflake ornament, then you know how this works. You fold a piece of paper five or six times, then cut out shapes with scissors or a knife. When you unfold the paper, the removed spots have been multiplied into symmetrical patterns.

It's ironic that in this virtual version, the unsteadiness of your cursor movements often contribute to the uniqueness and surprise of your designs.

Anyway, I think this snowflake program can be a metaphor for good game design. The best design is exponential. By that I mean that the player gets out of the game more than what the designer puts in.

A few examples:
  • The ability to throw a person in Saints Row 2. Some content in the game is designed specifically for this feature, but as much or more related content is emergent. The player can throw someone against a wall, in front of a train, onto a car, off a building, over a rail, into breakable furniture, into another person, into the ocean, down a stairway, etc.
  • The ability to change spell order in Fable 2. Though there are only a dozen or so spells in the game, the ordering and charge up of those spells, and their combination with melee and ranged skills, enable good variety. When abilities can be combined or linked somehow, those abilities often gain far greater affective power.
  • The encouragement of trade in Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. Because trade in those games relies mostly on human intelligence (individual, dynamic, reactive, etc) more than fixed rules, players are free to adapt gameplay to suit their own preferences and momentary desires.

Monday, November 10, 2008

warning for refurbished 360s

Unless some disaster strikes, today UPS should deliver my "repaired" 360 (replaced it with a refurbished console). Not a bad turnaround time, in my opinion.

But there has been a interesting twist in this, my second, 360 replacement experience: I can see who owned this refurbished console before me... along with his address, phone number, and email address.

At least, that's who I'm guessing the person is. Microsoft has been revamping the Xbox site in preparation for the November XBL update, the NXE. Presumably as a result, I was unable to check my console's repair status online through most of last week. That's fine. But as of Friday, my Console Management page shows a new console with some stranger's personal information in all of the fields when I click on "Request a Repair" (which I happened to check due to some random impulse).

I had to reiterate this a few times to the Microsoft reps I spoke with over the phone, because they apparently cannot see the problem at their end. We verified that we were seeing the same serial number next to the console name and icon, but Microsoft apparently can't see this stranger's information tied with my replacement console.

I have emailed the stranger (using the address on my account) to notify him of the mistake. Honestly, I don't consider address, phone number, and email address to be very sensitive information. It's not hard for that information to be found by someone on the internet. I don't have the guy's password, credit card information, or anything truly dangerous like that. But I figure he should still know.

I can only guess that this mistake represents a glitch in the site update. How common or uncommon this problem is, I have no idea. But I recommend clicking on "Request a Repair" on your own account to see if some stranger's information is there (don't worry, requesting a repair is more than a one-click process, so you won't start a replacement process by accident).

I don't blame Microsoft for the apparent lack of interest of the reps I spoke with. That's a mistake of individual employees, not of the company. But the company obviously does have an obligation to find the root of this problem, especially if it's widespread. If they can't see the problem from their end, then they're still obligated to find out why I'm seeing it.

I've received my replacement console from UPS. There's a letter included which explains that this is a replacement console. Also, the guy whose information I was shown has told me that his own console broke down a couple weeks ago.

So I'm all but certain now of what happened. This guy's broken console was repaired, then given to me as a replacement for my own broken console. When Microsoft registered his old console to me, they failed to purge his personal information from their records associated with the serial number.

In other words, it's quite possible this has happened to someone else, but I have no idea if its a systematic failure or a fluke.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

defining fun

Today, I'm going back to the most fundamental question of game design: What is fun?

This post is necessarily long, but I've tried to keep this as short and orderly as possible. I'm not completely satisfied with the following argument, but I believe it's stronger than others I've read.

Fun is a subset of entertainment. This can be verified by asking yourself two questions: Is all fun entertaining? Is all entertainment fun? The answer to the former is yes; to the latter, no. Fun is entertainment in which the audience actively participates. I'll go so far as to say that the degree of fun is related to degree of participation, though I don't believe the two are directly bound to one another. I'll get into this a bit more later.

Reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire can be entertaining, but few would call it fun. Reading Jurassic Park, however, can be fun for many. That's because most people are trained to merely absorb history, rather than to question, imagine, and explore it. Readers are more apt to participate in fiction by picturing the story, imagining themselves as the characters, questioning the story's themes, and so on.

Now I'm going to dig a little deeper. My premises here are debatable, but an avid game designer should have an alternative theory if he or she disagrees with what I propose. Game design fundamentally involves anticipation and manipulation of emotions, and one is better able to do that with a conscious understanding of what emotions are and how they operate. One can design a great game from intuition, as I'm sure many do, but deliberate understanding undoubtedly helps.

Entertainment is a subset of joy. All that is entertaining is enjoyable, but not all that is enjoyable is entertaining. Joy, or happiness, is emotional harmony. The less disparity that exists between seeking and having, wanting and being, perception and actuality, the happier we are.

Consider all the unpleasant things we enjoy. We voluntarily listen to sad and angry music, and enjoy it. We can enjoy sadness and anger because those emotions are right/accurate responses to some situations. Orderly sadness and anger (emotions can be disorderly, inappropriate) are responses to disharmony. Sadness is a response to separation (from desired companions, but also from desired situations). Anger is a response to injustice. Anyway, the point is that happiness can be found even amid disharmony when our response disharmony is correct (harmonious with reality).


Joy/Happiness --> Entertainment --> Fun

Now it seems I must modify an old point. You see, I'm not as stubborn as you think!

I've said before that games do not have to be fun, only entertaining. But if fun is a result of participation, then an interactive art must necessarily involve fun. So a more accurate statement would be: games can be focused on entertainment, rather than fun. Story-focused adventure games, particularly ones with a lot of cinematics, could be said to represent this maxim. The focus of some such games is not on interaction, but on reception of scripted experiences.

If a product's focus is predominantly on entertainment, rather than fun, then I would say it is more film or literature than game. The mediums are not cleanly distinct. There can be overlap (video games, in particular, regularly incorporate other mediums, such as art).

We tend to think of fun as being more purely joyful and entertainment as possibly including a wide variety of emotions, but non-joyful emotions can be integral to fun activities. For example, one might not only listen but sing along to a sad song. One might pretend a role of anger or sadness, as children often do. There is still a joy, a harmony involved, but that is not the only emotion at work. Emotions are rarely isolated in experience.

Developers I respect often say that play (engaging in fun) is about learning new skills. That's incorrect, but perhaps only because of the obsession with skills. Fun necessarily involves action, but skills are not the limit of action, nor the limit of learning.

Perhaps the joy we find in fun comes from learning and applying skills, knowledge, and wisdom (when, where, why, and how to apply knowledge and skills).

Wisdom is similar to a skill, but is not a skill. Critical thinking is a skill, but not wisdom. Wisdom is a consequence of good logic and accurate, and/or copious, knowledge. It's a form of knowledge; an object of information, rather than an action. So perhaps it should be lumped in with knowledge, but I'm not sure.

Fun from learning and application of knowledge can be seen in trivia games. Many popular trivia games, like Trivial Pursuit, offer no strategy (beyond picking teammates, if you're playing with enough people). All you do is roll the dice and answer a question. There's no skill involved, only knowledge and luck. It's the competitive application of knowledge, social interaction, and the thrill of chance which makes that game fun. Even without competing players, people sometimes enjoy reading the question cards to challenge themselves.

Speaking of which... How can the thrill of chance fit into a definition focused on learning? Dice, slot machines, lotteries... these activities feel entertaining and, many would say, fun. Which is it? Entertainment or fun? Perhaps it is the instinctual desire to find or create order in our world from which we find engaging. If so, what are we learning? After the hundredth or thousandth time of rolling the dice, surely the player is beyond learning that not all elements of experience are within our control. So what is the player learning?

Then, of course, there's the question of how boredom and learning can coincide. Learning is not always fun, so how can fun be the result of any and all learning? If learning is the source of enjoyment, then there must exist some qualifier that separates fun learning from not-fun learning.

I give up! At least for now. I haven't found a definition of fun I like yet, and there are certainly holes in this argument, but I feel a little closer. This is not a question to try to answer in a single afternoon! I won't post again until the weekend or Monday, so you can take your time with this.

Complaints? Questions? Where am I off?

By the way, I haven't yet read Raph's A Theory of Fun. My exposure to theories of fun is purely from reading comments of his and others' on blogs and industry sites. It's quite possible that most or all of this long musing is nothing new. Some developers have probably already provided answers to the questions I pose.

Don't worry, Raph! I'll buy your book eventually. :)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

text size

It's the epitome of myopic design...

The developers play their game only on HD-TVs, so they make the short-sighted (or even deliberate) mistake of providing only one size for all the game's text: HD size (i.e., small). As a result, gamers with standard-definition TVs -- still the majority of gamers -- have to strain their eyes if they can read anything at all.

It's a senselessly common problem that has irritated me in many games. But this is the first time I've heard a developer basically tell the gamers with standard TVs that they don't matter.

Yes, HD is the future. But many of us aren't there yet. I realize that text size affects UI design. But is the difficulty really so significant that you're willing to exclude millions of potential customers?

This seems plainly ridiculous to me. Am I speaking from ignorance here?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

console MMOs

Playing off Tobold's insights, here are some thoughts of my own on the advent of console MMOs.

First, PC gamers should be excited about console MMOs even if they don't intend to play them. I agree with Tobold that console MMOs will necessarily be different from PC games. Yet they'll still compete with PC games since many, if not most, gamers who own a console also play games, at least occasionally, on their computers.

Any way it happens, the design concepts in console MMOs will bleed into PC MMOs. Each will affect the other design-wise. As a result, we might see more variety in PC MMOs. Certainly, console MMOs will more often focus on real-time combat. That's one feature which will bleed over.

Second, keyboards might not shame console controls in versatility much longer. Voice commands, ala Tom Clancy's EndWar, aren't very popular now, but they will be once a console maker comes up with a more comfortable headset. We could eventually see something as small as Bluetooth earpiece, and voice recognition technology will continue to improve.

All console manufacturers are also making headway on gesture recognition software and hardware. If a console can tell which way you're tilting your controller, which way your body is moving, where your eyes are directed, then that's further control which can be offered intuitively to the player. Advancement of such technology is certain, though intelligent use of it is not. I'm not saying this tech will greatly empower console MMOs, but it could.

Communication isn't a problem, though console communication must rely on voice chat. By next console generation, voice chat will probably appeal to more gamers due to exposure. And voice masking technology continues to improve, so by next generation no one will have to know whether your young or old, male or female, etc. Still, I won't say voice chat isn't without its drawbacks. For one thing, most people are particular about the style and quality of their voice, and those who don't like the available voice masks are likely to not chat at all.

As for payment, I'm sure multiple strategies are possible, including subscription models. People are already accustomed to paying monthly fees on top of their basic subscriptions to cable and satellite TV for additional programming (such as sports packages or movie packages). So paying a fee on top of a monthly subscription to Xbox Live is likely a feasible business model. Of course, Sony doesn't charge for the PS3 online service, so subscription MMOs might be easier for them.

Xbox Live already has customers accustomed to microtransactions, as does PSN. Many people have downloaded additional content for Oblivion, Crackdown, and other games.

Free-to-play models are possible, but I've never seen a free-to-play MMO of the graphical quality that the PS3 and 360 demand. The production costs such quality requires might not make sense for these games. If a free-to-play MMO were released on Xbox Live, I expect it would be released via the Live Arcade.

What other issues might arise in the shift from PC to consoles for MMOs?

Monday, November 03, 2008


Why don't we see them in MMOs?

There are two primary aspects to an arena: competition and spectators. MMOs fail to design for spectators. These games are full of battles and competitions -- PvE, PvP, RvR -- but audiences who can watch these battles while remaining outside the conflict are purely incidental when they do exist.

Predictably, my closest experience to playing spectator in an MMO was in early Star Wars: Galaxies. While sitting in a cantina so that an entertainer could heal my fatigue, a gunfight suddenly sprang up between a Rebel and an Imperial soldier. It was exactly like the cantina scene in the first Star Wars film: for the duration of the fight, the music and dancing stopped and all eyes were upon the warriors. When the battle was over, the music and dancing resumed; the audience returned to their socializing.

Here's where I answer my own question. Arenas have obvious potential for fun: imagine players rooting for and betting on their favorite fighters and favorite teams, or players capturing mobs to sell to the arena, etc. But we don't see arenas in MMOs because dynamics and skill are downplayed in the standard MMO combat template.

I'm fine with games being designed for gamers who are not like me. I have plenty of friends and family who can only enjoy a game if the control complexity and dependence on skill are less than I generally prefer. MMOs reach many people like this, among others. But it's sad that such avoidance of depth and dynamics in MMO combat so completely dominates the genre that features such as arenas are impossible.

But maybe I'm wrong. Do you think arenas are possible with current MMO standards?