Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009: Retrospective, Observations, Prospects

I’ve played a surprising number of MMOs this year. None of them held my interest for more than 40 days. Here are the MMOs I’ve spent more than an hour playing and a quick thought on each. This isn’t meant to be decisive objective analysis.

  • Ryzom – sparsely populated, antiquated interface. There’s certainly potential here, but the product may simply be too dated.
  • Perpetuum Online (Closed Beta) – Eve Online, but on the ground with mechs. Has potential but I did not want to grind through the non-existent early game during beta.
  • Alganon Online (Open Beta) – I will not try this game again even if it were offered free of charge.
  • Aion – I thought I could play a grindy game and enjoy it as a meditative experience. I was wrong.
  • DDO – It was fun to duo until I hit the paywall, then it became too much work to track down free content so I lost interest.
  • World of Warcraft – Still the premier themepark game. I can’t stand the triviality of it even though the game was some fun to duo through when I was in the right mood.
  • Eve Online – Normal activity is way too monotonous in this game. It’s constant partial-AFK unless something serious happens—and something serious barely ever happens unless you spend a lot of time playing.
  • Fallen Earth – A crafting themepark with awkward action-oriented combat and a tantalizingly open world. The gameplay felt like a complete grind to me. I didn’t think it was worth writing an article about the game.
  • Darkfall – A completely trivial character advancement scheme (no specialization even six months after release?), easily exploited for quite some time) that would be better off much more flat and much less grindy. “Your mastery of Rest has increased” is one of the dumber concepts I’ve encountered in an MMO.
  • Atlantica Online – Super grindy, but had a novel-enough combat system and some cool guild perks like guild crafting and town ownership in a themepark game.
  • Lord of the Rings Online – Though not as polished and streamlined as the WoW themepark, if I were to choose a themepark game to play, it would be LotRO. Good variety in goals, non-standard class concepts with some innovation, and a reasonably open-feeling world kept me playing LotRO and actually enjoying the experience for longer than I’ve been able to stand any other MMO.

Other games that I have enjoyed this year more than most of the MMOs listed above:

  • Settlers of Catan – A neat little board game with a random map and enough chance to keep play interesting. Maybe there’s a little too much chance for my liking.
  • Europa Universalis 3: Complete + Heir to the Throne – I love EU3. Grand strategy at its best.
  • Borderlands – Diablo with guns. A fun time—especially in co-op.
  • Table Tennis/Ping-Pong – Probably my most-played game of 2009. Since June my father and I play 3 to 5 11-point games per night. We’re not great but we have fun.
  • Blood Bowl – The most recent LRB rules sustained this game further than the software that implemented them could have.
  • AI War – A good indie RTS, though it can be a bit boring at times.

What have I learned this year?

  • People think a lot less about game design—even game designers—than I expected.
  • It’s difficult to write about game design when you don’t have any built-in credibility and you’re primarily writing for gamers, not people who actually have a vested interest in learning about game design.
  • Mind-numbing but pleasant and ego-tickling content is pervasive and popular, both in blogging and in games.
  • I’m in a small minority with regards to my gaming interests.
  • Don’t talk about other bloggers unless you’re praising them, even if you aren’t being serious.
  • A blog’s popularity doesn’t justify reading it, even if it happens to cover the genre you write about.
  • There are a very small number of blogs about MMO design that are worth reading if you spend much time thinking and writing about MMO design, even if you are an amateur.

Some goals for next year:

  • Consolidate several of the essays I’ve posted here into longer, stronger, and more pointed articles on game design.
  • Make some kind of index that will let new readers figure out what the hell I’m doing here. It’s currently quite confusing to start reading more recent articles without having some concept of the concepts I posted about earlier.
  • Participate in the creation of at least one game that sees the light of day. (Currently I’m involved in two MMO-related projects with small teams and I have a few personal projects I’d like to bring to fruition.)
  • Write more clearly. This may mean posting less often—hopefully Mot will come back and pick up the slack so I can really dig in and put out some good writing. I may be past the phase where I’m just spewing ideas and seeing what sticks.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Goal Generation (Pt. 2): Games as Relationships

[This post is part two in a series of posts about goals in games (MMOs in particular). Here is the first post.]

Games are like interpersonal relationships. And no, this is not to be taken in jest.

Communication is Essential but Requires Work

The only communication between you and a game occurs when you use a control device (keyboard and mouse, microphone, traditional console controller, etc) to give the game input. The game talks back to you through visuals and sound. Communicating with a game is expressing your will to the game through the use of controls. Just like in conversation with a stranger, your first steps towards communicating with the game may be misunderstood—you’ll do what you think tells the game what you want, but something else will happen in the game than what you expected. You try to stop Mario before a ledge but he slides off. This can get quite frustrating, but developing this communication between you and the game is the most basic step towards forming a strong relationship.

Like communications between people, communication between player and game leads to a certain unique kind of relationship. No two people will have the same relationship with a third person just as no two people will have the same experience playing a game. Each player enters each play session in a different emotional state, with different knowledge, and in a different real-life environment than any other play session. So within one person’s experience, they could have several significantly different play sessions that led to far-flung outcomes from frustration to jubilation.

We Interact So We Can Be Validated

We maintain relationships where others validate our personalities, thoughts, ideas, dreams, and desires. This process of validation makes us feel good about ourselves, so we seek it out. Usually people who engage in non-validating relationships are unhappy and, probably, seeking to end that relationship.

We enjoy playing games that seem to validate our will. If games fail to validate our will, we can’t communicate with them well enough for a working relationship to develop from which fun emerges.

Goals as Validation Schemes… or Not.

Some of our goals come from within and some from without. These goals are much different in how and why we pursue them.

Goals that come from within make us happy just through their accomplishment. If no one else ever saw that you completed that goal, you’d still be happy about it.

When we look for goals, we often look to those around us. What are they doing? If they’ve accomplished certain goals and they are happy, I must be able to achieve happiness through accomplishing those goals. Goals are propagated through a society in this way. Such goals don’t make us happy simply through their completion, though—we need someone to validate that the goal was worthwhile. When we complete the goal, we’ll go to our friends and tell them about it and pay close attention to their reactions. If they react positively, we feel good about our accomplishment—our friends have validated our efforts—but if they react negatively, we are much more likely to see our actions in pursuit of a goal as a waste of time.

Goals work similarly in games. The game becomes the society from which we draw the second kind of goal, though, and we rely on the game validating our actions in order for such goals to be worthwhile and, by extension, for a game that relies on such goals to be worth playing.

Goals can be usefully categorized:

  • Based on their source. Where does the goal originate?
    • Intrinsic (or intrinsically sourced) goals originate within the player’s mind.
    • Extrinsic (or extrinsically sourced) goals originate from some other agent, like another player or a game.
  • Based on if they are communicated directly. Is the goal told to the player, or does the player form the goal automatically based on the environment?
    • Implicit goals are realized by the player without direct communication.
    • Explicit goals are literally told to the player.

A successful goal generation and completion process in a game proceeds like this:

  1. You interact with the game to learn what you are capable of doing.
  2. The game makes it clear what you should do (an extrinsic, explicit goal is generated), or you find something you want to do within the confines of the game (you generate an intrinsic, implicit goal).
  3. You develop a plan to achieve your goal. This plan consists of implicit subgoals.
  4. You complete the subgoals and, by so doing, complete the main goal.
  5. For extrinsic goals, the game validates your will and presence in the game world through rewarding you and encouraging you forward. For intrinsic goals, you are happy and encouraged by completing your goal.

If part of this process is missing, the game will fail to hold your attention beyond its limited value as a curiosity.

Notice that gamers that need validation will rely on extrinsic goals and the pat on the back the game will give them when they succeed. The railroading that results doesn’t bother such a player, because games are merely validation engines for them. If the game doesn’t validate a player that needs validation, that player will stop playing. They will feel like the game is pointless to play.

For players who do not need validation from the game, they will not be happy with a game that does nothing but validate them—they may see such a game as lacking substance. These players want games that will allow them to exert their will on the game world within reasonable bounds. Railroading will be a turn-off.

[I removed an ill-conceived and incomplete section of this post that will be rewritten and included in a follow-up to this post. -Ev]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Self-Balancing Systems?

I’ve been thinking about meta-games recently. No, not the metagame that I talked about earlier, but systems that produce sets of game rules—literally, software that procedurally generates entire games.

I’ve written posts abstracting the various parts of RPGs into neat definitions. The writing was dry and probably didn’t earn me much cred in blogging circles, but it needed to be done before I could even conceive of game rule generators for the RPG genre. Without some basic vocabulary we have difficulty even discussing simple abstract systems.

Instead of actually generating entire game systems from scratch, let’s try to solve an easier problem. How could we automate balancing of RPG combat mechanics? This requires algorithmically tweaking rules conceived by a designer—the designer gives a framework for abilities and the algorithm comes up with the exact numbers that should balance those abilities against one another to hopefully make all of them parts of viable strategies.

The processes used to self-balance combat mechanics probably can be modified and applied successfully to other aspects of the game, but being to abstract at this stage of discussion could lead us to severe language trouble as I fail to find feasible broad terms.

I will summarize two ideas I have for self-balancing combat systems in this post. In later posts, I will discuss each in significantly depth.

Zero-Sum Ability Balance

Assign utility values to each of the effects and costs that abilities can have(positive utilities for the effects and negative utilities for the costs). Pick out the effects each ability will have and make a weighted list of costs. The zero-sum ability balancer would go through and value the set of effects for an ability, then assign costs preferentially until the ability reaches a total utility of 0. If you value effects and costs properly, this will automatically balance the abilities in your game.

The primary difficulty is coming up with the proper valuations for different costs and effects. Genetic algorithms could be used to generate and cull valuations systems. The problem is highly multivariate, so writing an algorithm that attempts a direct solution process would be significantly trickier.

This method will work for both class- and skill-based systems.

Popularity-Based Ability Balance

Let players vote with their feet. If they think a certain ability is overpowered, let them choose the ability, but make that ability less powerful for everyone in the game world by some increment. The increment would be smaller for abilities that are staples for certain kinds of builds so that everyone using the level 1 firebolt won’t nerf it into being useless. Basically, The more people choose a power, the less powerful it is. Let the playerbase create characters and play the game in this way for a month (a shorter interval of time may work), then reset the base values for the effects on abilities and adjust the penalty-per-player. Run like this throughout the life of the game and watch it balance itself. If you have 10,000+ players, you have a reasonable chance of generating a balanced system—and that balanced system is actually self-adjusting when new patches come out!

If all players behave rationally and build characters based on information available about their abilities and popularity (the interface should provide some idea of how popular abilities are), this system would converge on balance faster than the zero-sum ability idea. This system would not counteract poor ability design in terms of putting useless or bugged effects onto expensive abilities, but it will balance the non-bugged abilities and it would make clear through the popularity numbers what abilities are bugged or need to be reworked. The game would need to make clear to the players that choosing the most popular ability is usually not the best idea—confusion in this area could lead to problems.

This approach probably wouldn’t work on a class-based system because it relies on the selection of individual abilities. If done at the class-level there’d be no way to isolate the abilities to buff or nerf because people don’t choose their class’ abilities, only the class itself.

OK, But…

These ideas are very experimental and very raw at the moment. I just wanted them to get some air and perhaps a few comments pointing out big holes that I missed.

Has anyone tried to implement a self-balancing system before?

If so, how was it done?

What ways can you think of to allow games to self-balance?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Liberate the Narrative!

Static stories in MMOs are just sets of game rules applied over the existing combat and crafting mechanics.

Static stories consist of quests (or, more broadly, game-induced goals or game-determined tasks) primarily. A quest is a game rule. The rule converts a set of player actions (kill 10 rats, go to a location, interact with a thing, or any combination of such actions) into rewards and allows the player to accept new quests.

We can describe a quest the same way we can describe any other game rule, like an ability:

  • Prerequisites. You have no hope of executing this game rule unless you have fulfilled its prerequisites. You need to complete some set of actions or obtain some set of game elements
    • A quest cannot be accepted until you fulfill level requirements and have completed the earlier quests in this chain.
    • An ability cannot be unlocked until you’re at a certain level, you have a certain amount of gold, and/or you’ve unlocked certain other abilities.
  • Triggers. To make this game rule execute, someone has to do something. (Perhaps this trigger could be included in the prerequisite part, but I figured it’d be more clear to include it here.)
    • To start a quest, you need to talk to this dude or go to that place or interact with this item.
    • When you activate an ability (through clicking on its icon, hitting a hotkey, etc.) you trigger it.
  • Requirements. A set of costs that need to be paid in order for the game rule to execute and who needs to pay those costs.
    • For a quest, these are the quest objectives.
    • For an ability, these are the resources you expend to use the ability (this includes both time, as in a cooldown, and the MP, stam, etc. cost, as well as any other cost you can think of).
  • Effects. What comes to pass when the requirements are met for a triggered game rule?
    • An NPC may reward you for a completing a quest by giving you experience, some gold, and a dandelion. Maybe he’ll even give you a buff and a cinematic!
    • Abilities cause something to happen to the game world. You execute a fireball ability and cause damage to enemies in an area, you pop your trinket to break a stun, you taste the rainbow and find yourself in front of an annoying leprechaun, etc.
  • End Conditions. What has to happen in order for this game rule to no longer apply? An end condition can repeal part or all of a game rule (game rules can contain other game rules).
    • Some abilities end right after they accomplish whatever effect they have, while some abilities last quite some time (like damage-over-time spells, buffs, and debuffs), and some other abilities require a set of conditions to be true before they’ll turn off (i.e. destroy this idol and the boss’ magical powers dissipate!).
    • Usually quests end when you turn them in or you manage to fail at some important part that cannot be reset without resetting the quest.

The “story” part is a bit of text splashed onto the screen to accompany the game rule—just like the flavor text that you see when you hover your mouse over your favorite ability. Both blurbs have the same amount of relevance to the game mechanics and mean nothing by themselves. The “story”, so told, only has meaning to you and other human players because it represents something you’re familiar with: stories as told in prose and poetry. The game itself doesn’t care what language that text is in or if it actually means anything.

People do play games for their stories, though. They play games to become enthralled in a universe. But does this require flavor-text-only narratives? Flavor-text-only is not the most efficient, effective, or involving way to tell a story in an MMO—and players demonstrate it constantly by overwhelmingly discussing their in-game exploits as interactions of game mechanics instead of describing the incredible story they read that was attached to a quest chain. There certainly should be flavor text—it helps with immersion to say the least—but character narratives don’t have to rely on flavor text at all in order to be meaningful to the player and to the game. We can generate such narratives by simply giving the player game mechanics that can effect the world in a way worth noting, then we can allow players to record their story (the game can help them to do this) and share it with other players. You don’t need a meaning-bereft and oft-ignored justification for why you should kill ten more rats when the game could simply let someone (player or NPC) have a rat problem and give that character the power to change that reality by their own hand or with the help of a sword-bearing passerby.

Modern sandbox games (Darkfall, EVE) allow the player to make his own story, yes, but the game limits the player’s story through game mechanics that allow the player to do little, and even less that can be recorded and later analyzed. You can craft and kill things on a large enough scale to capture a city or a planet—but who records these facts and presents them in an easy-to-understand way? And those interactions aren’t the only ones we’d like to hear about. Plenty of great narratives are lost because players do interesting things and don’t think of recording their experience. The game should allow interested, involved, and qualified players to create certain kinds of game rules, like quests and other tasks, and build the story themselves. You can have your cake and eat it too: let qualified players make quests, then less-qualified players can accept those quests and change the world as they complete them to achieve higher status and obtain valuable rewards. Sandbox-lovers and themepark-lovers can co-exist happily in such a system.

We need to liberate narrative from its enslavement to static game rules. Let players make the primary narrative of the game by combining and manipulating game rules to interact with the world. They do this anyway outside of the game through telling stories centered on the game mechanics, like the harrowing tale of how they beat this forty-man raid first on their server—harness the story-telling potential inherent in game mechanics. Let players build stories using the game mechanics as building blocks and put those stories in the forefront. This kind of player-driven narrative would free the story from its static, deterministic drabness that has led many prognosticators to discard story in MMOs as a mere do-nothing formality that is better off ignored. The flood of meaning and fun such reform would cause has the potential to turn the revolutionize the MMORPG.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Toboldian Content: A Useless, Poorly-defined Measure.

Tobold has a fatally flawed and useless definition of content. I usually don't carry over comments from his blog to this one [removed an unnecessarily strong phrase, my apologies -Ev], but he’s brought up a topic that I would like to address.

A Poor Definition of Content

Tobold begins by stating his definition of content in a sound-bite form:

I would say that any MMORPG has two fundamental parts: A repetitive part, for which the base rules are always the same, for example combat. And the non-repetitive part which creates the conditions for all those combats, which I call "content".

There are wrong assumptions here. Tobold assumes that all repetitive action in MMOs is combat, which is patently untrue. Crafting may be even more repetitive and deserves a mention. Aside from this semantic contention, t (Oops, I misread "example".)The “base rules” for combat are not always the same. The easiest example are the vehicular combats in WoW: they certainly do not use the same rules as normal combat. Also, playing as a different class engages you with different rules in combat. Tobold could be talking very abstractly here, but I doubt he is—he has never talked so abstractly before. The “base rules” for combat should also include the various special abilities for whatever foe you’re fighting, so those base rules do change between combats with different kinds of monsters (I’ll go into this further and make stronger assertions related to game rules in a future post).

Tobold fails to consider player action-related rules as an element of content. Certainly what a player can do in the world, as dictated wholly by the rules that govern his character’s action, should dictate some part of a measure of content. We can judge the content of games based on game rules alone if we want: which game has more content, the one where you have 2 attacks or the one where you can build houses and dig holes as well as engage in diverse combat?

Tobold’s assumptions are off and incomplete, but perhaps his definition is still salvageable. He claims that the context for repetitive action is the content in an MMO.

Content can be quests, landscapes, dungeons, scripted events like boss fights, monster models, loot tables, lore, and many other things.

This seems reasonable, actually. But then he demonstrates a lack of understanding by attaching no content value to the times where these aspects of content are not hand-made.

What I don't count as content is the number of square miles of procedurally generated landscapes, or the near-infinite number of randomly generated dungeons in games like Diablo or City of Heroes.

What about procedurally generated quests that generate new dungeons that otherwise would not be present? Much content in roguelikes would be disregarded by Tobold, even though it’s entirely illogical to do so. Certainly generating what he’d otherwise call “content” with a machine instead of by hand should count somewhat towards the total content value of a game!

Compare a game with 5 hand-made single-floor dungeons that are always the same to a game with 5 hand-made dungeons that each have 4 more randomly-generated floors. Clearly a game with 25 dungeon floors, even if they have the same art assets and monsters, has more content than a game with only 5.

He then goes on to demonstrate superficial thinking by comparing two games that have just about nothing in common, European football and WoW. This example illustrates the weakness of his definition and its uselessness to describe something worth describing.

A Useless Definition of Content

What do we care about in games?

Do we care about how many gigabytes of textures and sound files are included on the DVD? There is no correlation between the aggregate filesizes of a game’s graphical assets and how much fun it is. And when we’re talking about games, we discuss them based on fun. (Except for the few people who discuss them as art, but they would also agree that sheer size does not dictate artistic merit.)

If we only take quantity of assets as a sign of amount of content, we’re saying nothing useful about the game from a critical perspective.

When players talk about content, they usually are discussing, perhaps indirectly, the amount of time it will take to complete the game. Clearly it doesn’t matter if quests and dungeons are hand-made or procedurally-generated, they add to the time it takes to finish a game in the same fashion—even if you’re only looking to beat a final boss of some type and not looking to collect every collectable and achieve every achievement.

Tobold’s Definition of Content Should be Disregarded

Both as a practical exercise and a critical exercise, Tobold’s definition of content is wildly flawed. His assumptions are incomplete and incorrect, his conclusions are not consistent with his other conclusions and assumptions, and the definition he seems to arrive at does not give us anything useful as game critics or gamers.

We cannot accept a definition so flawed on its own merits and counter to the common understanding of the word defined.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Familiarity Bias

We act preferentially towards familiar phenomena. We find reasons why the familiar is better than the unfamiliar. We defend what is familiar because we know its strengths and weaknesses. We avoid risk through avoiding change—even known annoyances and negatives are OK in comparison to unknowns.

But is the familiar really better? Familiarity and system quality may be entirely independent. Unfortunately, many of our quality judgments are formed with reference to the familiar and not to objective criteria, especially in games. There’s no avoiding it.

“The only intuitive interface is the nipple.” We travel from interface to interface, from game to game, and what we find easier to learn is whatever happens to be closest to that with which we are familiar. The familiar does not depend on what games were of the highest quality, though—we met our first games for reasons entirely separate from the fact that they were good games that we thought were worth meeting.

When I was 8 or 9 and was confronted with Ferrari Grand Prix for the NES, I messed around with it until I understood how to play. I had no concept of game quality, only an experimental feeling of fun or annoyance. It was novel enough to see the graphics move around on the screen when I pressed buttons. I didn’t play that game very much, but I have fond memories of it and remember it as an enjoyable game. Does that mean that the game is good by any objective criteria? Through some brute force process of experimentation and through the dumb luck of my parents buying me that game, I learned how racing games work and that I find them to be somewhat fun.

The universe of games I can like is limited to the universe of games I’m exposed to. There could be an amazing genre of games hiding away in a niche on the other side of the internet and I would never find it except by chance.

I don’t remember how I found the sports management sim (also called “text sim”) community and genre that they so ardently and loyally support, but I’m very happy that I did. Front Office Football 2007 is probably my favorite football game for any platform. I would have had no idea that the game even existed if it weren’t for blind luck on a google search 5 years ago (when the game was on its last iteration, FOF 2004). At first I resisted the game because the interface is not for the faint of heart. The game sports the best (commercially available? game-format?) football simulation engine that exists—for that reason alone I gritted my teeth and blundered my way through hours of pain. Soon I got past the learning curve and now I absolutely love the game. I pick it up several times per year and play through 20 or 30 seasons.

Front Office Football 2007

When I talk with the community that has developed around FOF games, I find that people overwhelmingly support the game’s interface even though it is objectively ugly, a pain to learn, and often annoying to use even for veteran players. It’s clear that people like this interface primarily because they’re used to it.

And people get used to insufficient or broken game mechanics in a similar way. Consider the debate over building and unit selection limits for StarCraft 2 (the third point in this post). The original Starcraft had unit selection limited to 12 units, though the endgame regularly saw more than 100 units on the field for each side. What seems like a technical limitation ends up being a point of severe contention. SC is one of the most popular eSports in the world. Performing hundreds of actions per minute is crucial to achieving victory in the very competitive Korean leagues. Most of these actions involve circumventing the selection cap to maneuver larger numbers of units simultaneously. Instead of three clicks to move 36 units (click, drag to select, click to move), it took 9. This triplication of clicking for a simple maneuver needs to be carried out thousands of times in a SC match in order for one side to be successful. This is artificial difficultly. People defend a lower unit selection cap in SC2 because this arbitrary skill test separates the the wheat of pro players from teh chaff of amateurs, in a certain way. I think this is candidly ridiculous—the skill test of the game should be inventing and enacting successful strategies, not outwitting the interface—and Sirlin agrees.

When what has come before plays such an important role in what we enjoy now, we run into difficulty having anything resembling an objective discussion. Anyone suggesting meaningful innovation (or even a small change to something fundamental) is trampled by thousands of players who can’t understand how anything different could work. And there are the nostalgia addicts who refuse to understand the difference between playing a game as a wide-eyed 10-year-old and playing a game as an adult with fully developed mental faculties.

Designing a great game involves overcoming a surprising amount of familiarity bias. It’s important to also be aware of our biases when we try to hold productive discussions about games. It’s difficult to be aware of our biases and doubly difficult to mitigate them, but if we can succeed, the bounty in meaningful discussion is enormous.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What are MMORPGs and Why Should I Care?

A game’s genre has nothing to do with how much fun the game will be. It may, at most, bias you towards certain judgments by putting a game’s content and mechanics into a different context.

Most often games that fail are those that take the concept of genre too seriously in their design. These games tend to be cookie-cutter cash-in attempts. Perhaps if you are Keen and want everything to be magically perfected before any innovation is tried, you’ll like such a world of look-alike and talk-alike games, but these games are usually not so well-received. Execution is the hardest part of game development. You’re more likely to fail by betting on a game that needs flawless execution than betting on a game that shows innovation.

But still, bloggers and commenters feel the need to post polemics deriding the trends that compromise the MMO-ness of a game that has been clearly and easily classified as an MMO.

Genre tag discussions are pointless:

  1. The people who are having the discussion have no actual use for the definition they’re making because they already understand the distinctions between games that the “better” genre tag would indicate. Only people who really care would even try to follow such a discussion. Never would such new terminology catch on, because only people for whom it is useless would understand the terminology.
  2. Genre and fun are independent. When discussing games, we should be talking about fun. As a player and game designer, genres are merely signposts at the most abstract level and give little to no indication of how fun a game may be. Debating the meaning of a genre will put “genre” in terms way too specific to be useful to the general audience that relies on such tags.
  3. Game design evolves. World of Warcraft is a much different game now than it was five years ago. If genre cannot even apply to one game over the course of its lifetime, how can it hope to apply to a universe containing thousands of games that may be in any genre at any one time? As developers explore the game design universe by making thousands upon thousands of games every year, the meaning of a genre will warp and alter. Trying to fix the meaning of a genre permanently is like, pardon the cliché, trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.

Consider these three reasons when you next think about arguing with someone about what an MMO is. I’d advise you to politely let the person know that they’re engaging in a pointless discussion, or you can simply move on to a more interesting posting without wasting your time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Games are Meaning Managers

I’ve written poetry for the last nine years of my life, but only three years ago did I come to a point where I could say what made poetry “good” from my perspective. I came to understand that the root of all communication is managing meaning. Each word is a unit of meaning that cooperates with those around it to manifest ideas in a reader’s mind. The meaning of the word lies not directly in its letters and their arrangement, but on all of the associations that a reader already has developed with that word. Managing meaning seems obvious at first, but understanding it is the key to producing great writing—and it’s also the key to designing great games.

Games are complex networks of meanings—much more complex than writing could hope to be. Games involve written word, visual abstractions, and audio that all contribute to the meaning created and managed.

Whence Comes Meaning?

When we notice the interrelations of phenomena, we attach meaning. We notice patterns in the world around us: we see that when dark clouds loom overhead, rain often follows. So clouds mean rain. In this way, meaning indicates precipitation. “X means Y” is the same as “X leads to Y”, or (maybe) “X causes Y”.

(I’ve always found the “clouds mean rain” example to be funny because it involves physical precipitation to describe the association of precipitation.)

Another philosophically significant definition of meaning is substitution. A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a camelhorse (thanks, Logan); wherever we see “mule”, we can substitute the phrase “the offspring of a donkey an camel” and lose no meaning, because the word and the phrase stand for the same thing. Thus, meaning signifies equivalency.

Meaning in Games

Games use both of these meanings of meaning.

The greatest source of meaning for entities in a game is the real world. Here, we’re talking about meaning as equivalency. The easiest way to give meaning to an in-game entity is to make it a copy or representation of a real entity. But this copy cannot be perfect, because games cannot be perfect copies of the real world. Games contain theoretical models of how parts of the real world might, or should, or could work. These models are implemented as mechanics that relate the game’s abstractions (or entities represented by art assets) to one another. In the real world we have similar theories that apply to the relations of real world phenomena. In games, we reflect the real world that we perceive and our theories about it into a limited virtual reality. This reflection may seem trivial at first, but if you want to deconstruct and analyze why and how games work, you need to realize how they use this reflection to create meaning.

Abstract games do not have this problem. They rely on their own mechanics and interface to supply them with meaning. A Queen in chess isn’t meaningful because it represents a real monarch; Players derive the Queen’s meaning through the mechanics that define its role in the game. If you were not a native English speaker, you would still understand the strategic importance of the Queen—even though you do not understand the meaning of the actual word—through a quick review of the game rules.

Meaning Only Exists in Context

A part of mentally maturing is searching for meaning in life. Such a search is less trying to find meaning and more trying to find a context for events that allows them to have meaning. The events in your life seem meaningless when taking into consideration the endless expanse of the universe and the miniscule amount of time you are given to inhabit this planet. In an attempt to place yourself in the universe—to give yourself meaning to yourself—you try to find the broadest context possible, the “real” context. This context is so broad as to consume everything, but in a context that consumes everything in the infinite expanses of space and time, any one thing is dwarfed into utter insignificance. If we’re all insignificant, then why bother living? In such a situation, nothing can have meaning.

But the vast majority of people do find meaning in their lives. They do it by limiting the operational context of their judgment of significance to a manageable scope. By including fewer things in your context, you can better discern significance and insignificance and not be forever dwarfed by the immensity of all things. This can be done by both secular and religious people. A Christian may place their life in the context of God’s work and His creation, and in this way allow their actions to be significant and meaningful in their spiritual journey. A non-religious person can come to the realization that a meaningless life is not worth living, and so consciously change the context of judgment to her community (or the collection of communities to which she belongs) so that events can have a relatively much wider and more satisfying gamut of meaning.

Likewise, parts of games have meaning only in certain contexts. If that context is violated, then the game becomes meaningless to the player. This context is purely subjective—it is the current state of the player’s mind and his understanding of games. No player remains unchanged after playing through a game; I don’t mean this in an emotional sense, I mean it in an experiential sense. We cannot go back into games ignorant once we have learned. This is actually a very important factor in creating games that stay fun for extended periods of time.

Managing meaning is about being aware of context—it’s about being aware of your audience. What do they know about the real world and about other games? How can you leverage that knowledge in unique and interesting ways to make your game worth player?

Creating Meaning

Players have fun when they have a view of where they’re going and what they can expect once they get there. Players love putting plans together and acting to bring them to fruition and, ultimately, reap both the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Through this most basic and fundamental process, players create and manipulate meaning.

Here is how to create meaning in a game (this operates on multiple levels, from the very smallest side quest to the most epic world-spanning adventure):

  • Let the player know what success will lead to. Tantalizing rewards can cause even an otherwise bored player to trudge further. Sometimes players will reward themselves and this point becomes secondary, but most times the game provides rewards.
  • Let the player form a plan about how to reach her goal.
    • Let the player know what she can do.
    • The player should understand, within some reasonable degree of error, the chance her plan will have at succeeding.
  • Give the player reason to believe that they had something to do with their success. (This is the “agency” that I referred to in my post about abstract strategy games.)

You would be surprised at the number of games that fail—and the number of ways they manage to fail—to accomplish these three seemingly simple tasks.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Serious Vocabulary Used Casually

I apologize for my loose use of certain vocabulary. I caused more confusion than I can stand, so I’d like to address the issue directly.

I need to come up with words to refer to more complicated thoughts about game design. I do not have the time (unfortunately) to read through even all of the best blog posts by game designers available, so I can’t constantly be double-checking each piece of terminology I think I coin or reuse against established (or even informal) standards.

“Serious” Games 

In my post about “serious” games, I could have simply called them “deep” games. I did not initially think about this, because I thought of such games as games to be approached seriously and analyzed deeply as opposed to games approached as entertainment and discarded casually. I was vaguely aware of the previous definition of serious games, but thought it didn’t have much application these days so hijacking the word wouldn’t lead to much commotion. I was wrong—I need to start calling “serious” games something else.


The word “metagame” does not have a strongly established meaning in general use. It has several specific meanings that sometimes overlap and sometimes have significantly different connotations. “Metagame” is associated with the concept of “metagaming” which has a wikipedia article that outlines its various usages.

  1. Making moves in a smaller-scale game with an eye towards affecting a larger-scale game instead of simply attempting to win the smaller-scale game.
  2. (as a noun) A system for creating or modifying game rules.
  3. Using knowledge from outside of the game to strategize within the game. (This is partially the meaning I use.)
  4. Exploiting game mechanics by using outside knowledge. (This definition leads to a negative connotation common to some gamers.)
  5. In role-playing games: Having one’s character act based on knowledge that the character wouldn’t have but the player does have.

The definition I use is a variant on (3):

The metagame is the process (or the current state) of players’ exploration of the strategic space of the game. This knowledge exists and is perpetuated outside of the game itself and advances over time as the community tests and debunks more candidate strategies.

My definition is a bit more specific than any of those above. In fact, “metagame” could be distinct in its definition from a word that appears to be derived from it, in this case “metagaming.” I may continue to use the word “metagame” with my meaning in the future, but link back here for the definition, or I can come up with a (hopefully) new word.

Any suggestions for better words I can use to refer to what I’ve previously called “serious” games and the “metagame”?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Serious Games Live in the Metagame

(A brief disclaimer regarding terminology: I do not use the words "metagame" and "serious game" in the ways that they are always used. "Metagame" apparently has a multitude of different meanings in different parlances. Please use the definition I've provided for discussion of this post. "Serious games" has a different accepted meaning than that to which I refer--I knew it when I wrote the article, but "serious" was the most appropriate word I could muster. So please use my definitions for these words in this article until I come up with better words for this stuff. Thanks. (And thanks to Psychochild for pointing it out.))


The metagame is the evolution of gameplay strategies outside of the game itself, including  the gathering of game knowledge from external sources and players studying others’ strategies.The progress of the metagame represents the players exploring the multitude of strategic opportunities a deep game (“hardcore” deep, not “casual” deep) presents. Only deep games have rewarding metagames.

The metagame strips away all but the ludic elements of the game. All fluff, be it story or even the transitions between levels in platformers, is skipped over because it does not contribute to the strategy-space of the game. As soon as a part of the game’s story is tied to a game mechanic, awareness of the metagame will erode the narrative elements until the player is left with only a conception of the mechanic as a piece of the game rules.

Company of Heroes (prior to the release of the first expansion, Opposing Fronts) was a great “RTS” game. It had a relatively rich metagame that shifted over time based on swapping replays of interesting matches and talking on forums about strategy. Many different strategies had their time in the spotlight. For a while the game was a contest of who could get to the end-game heavy tanks, the Pershing for Allies and the King Tiger for the Germans,  and harness their power the fastest. Some serious patching completely changed the fabric of the game, leading to infantry-heavy strats dominating. The brief era of pioneer-spam saw many frustrated players until it was patched. The strategy-space was fairly well-explored by the time Opposing Fronts released, but people were still playing the game plenty and finding new and creative ways to win—even after many months no one had reduced the game to a simple spam strat for any meaningful amount of time. The metagame was vibrant and, though not as deep as a elder statesman like Starcraft, provided me with many hours of entertainment in itself.[In retrospect, this is not a good example because I make it seem as if the metagame should rely on changes to the game rules--a game with a deep metagame does not need such changes to remain interesting. In a way, patching changes the game enough to force the player to recalculate their view of the metagame. This doesn't really correlate to adding depth, just moves the players to a different part of the proverbial strategy pool. -Ev]

There is Fun in Games Sans Metagames

But not every game has a healthy metagame—or any metagame at all. For some games, metagaming ruins the gameplay. A player may enjoy playing through a game in a natural, unaided fashion for onedownsized_0616091452 and only one time. Brenda Braithwaite’s Train is an example of this: once the player understand the game, the meaning of the game is significantly altered and the game is compromised as a game, though perhaps not as a piece of art. Entering such a game with a very attainable degree of metagame knowledge renders the game uninteresting. Learning about the game outside of the game itself breaks the natural process of exploration that some games rely upon. These games cannot be good games of strategy. Strategic thinking is not a primary goal of such a game, or, if the game does aim to have serious depth, the game mechanics are not well-designed. [Knowledge of the "twist" in Train does change the gameplay--I was way too aggressive by stating that the game is compromised by multiple playthroughs. The real point here is that some games don't focus on strategy and don't need depth to be fun or affecting. -Ev]

I am not decrying games that do not have meaningful metagames. Such games have other roles to play in the pantheon of entertainment. They are entertaining in a decidedly limited (though that limit may not necessarily be low) fashion, like a good action movie might be. This doesn’t mean that they are inferior or to be frowned upon. They can lead to as much, if not more, entertainment than a serious game in the hands of certain players. They’re games that most players can sit down and enjoy, they simply are not games to be taken seriously by the player as a game. They played “casually”. Players do not study such games and they are given no real reason to study. A player will proceed through the game in 10, 20, maybe as many as 40 hours—perhaps even playing through a few times—and then disregard the game because the game is “finished”. Most games are like this, and the vast majority of people who play games spend the vast majority of their time playing such “casual” games.

(I put “casual” in quotes for a good reason. I do not mean to relabel or reinterpret the idea of casual gaming, but in comparison with the kind of gaming that goes on in metagame-intensive games, players approach less deep games in a decidedly casual way.)

“Hardcore” is not Serious

touhou10fs4Themepark MMOs almost universally are not serious games. A game is not a serious game simply because it requires a significant time investment to reach some goal. Themepark MMOs are very long multiplayer games—they are “casual” games that have more content than most others and an environment of social competition that urges players to continue playing through grinds and boredom.

“Hardcore” games are not necessarily serious games. Games that punish excessively and reward sparingly—games that make mundane goals ridiculously difficult to achieve (I’m thinking primarily of bullet-hell games and games like Flail), are not necessarily serious games, either. Difficulty does not dictate if a game is serious.

A game’s strategic depth—having more to learn about strategy within the game—as signaled through its metagame indicates if it is a serious game.

Serious MMOs

MMOs bother me because they delay a player’s participation in any kind of meaningful metagame for a month or two while their character levels. I don’t want to arbitrarily wait a month before being able to experience the fullness of the game. Even when I do get there, the metagame is often a flat expanse of memorizing raid strats and FOTM builds. PvP is the only facet of MMOs that usually offers much strategy worth considering, but this strategy is often overwhelmed by gear differentials, and gear differential breaks down into time spent, not techniques learned and mastered. MMOs are a composition of many different games—but most of these games are “casual” or casual.

I’m primarily interested in bringing a serious game mentality to MMO design. In this way MMOs can become almost endless in playability as a game as well as a social experience. Not only would a serious MMO offer plenty of content to players at different skill levels, it would offer years of material to learn and recontextualize content.

Around serious games societies bloom.  A substantial game provides a common ground for diverse players with unique goals to come together for a common cause. This will build communities that are tighter and stronger than themepark MMO communities. A serious MMO does not need to have 100,000 subscribers to stay around, because a group of 10,000 dedicated players could sustain the game. There would not be much tourism and turn-over from such a game, because it presents a deep and unique opportunity that is differentiated from other games in the genre. Serious games cannot be a rehashed with success, because the mechanics must be well thought-out and maintained to promote a strong metagame.

It’s not easy to design serious games, but I think that serious MMOs can make money. They will definitely be better for players—more fun for longer—than the current trend.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Abstract Game Criteria, Revisited

All games worth discussing for their ludic merits are strategy games. All such games involve planned set of actions that players attempt to execute in order to achieve some kind of goal set by the game through the use of a set of rules. The genre distinctions used in the media are primarily differences in the interface the player uses to participate in the game. First-person shooters, RPGs, puzzle games, and Poker are all games of strategy—they just use different ways of expressing the aspects of strategies and the effects of strategies. Because all games are strategy games, one end of the spectrum should be those games considered more “purely” games of strategy: abstract strategy games.

Why are abstract strategy games considered the purest? Because they most emphasize

  • Player agency. The players should have a direct say in what happens within the game. Game results should be the results of the players’ actions alone.
  • Mechanic-based Strategizing. The only strategies should be those that operate within the context of the game mechanics. In this way, the strategy-space is uncluttered by external factors that change independent of the game mechanics. The game mechanics themselves are all that need to be considered in order to invent a successful strategy.

There are three factors that can detract from these emphases:

  • Imperfect Information. If information knowledge is asymmetric within the game, players do not have sufficient evidence to strategize successfully while maintaining full agency.
  • Chance. Elements of chance reduce player agency by removing the guarantee that a simple strategic action (like moving a piece in chess) will complete. If there is a chance that an action will fail independent of player choice and stategy, player agency is damaged.
  • Non-dyadic play. If more than two people are playing a game, politics seeps into any successful strategy. Politics is outside of the mechanics of the game, and therefore violates the mechanic-dependence of the strategy-space. (The word “dyad” is awesome, too.)

Sid Meier’s Civilization as a Concrete Strategy Game

In the beginning of a game of Civilization, I have no knowledge of the world beyond the borders of my one city. How do I chose my strategy going forward? I chose a strategy here that will have profound effects on the rest of the game, yet I’m severely lacking in information about the world and the other players. Over the next 30 turns, I will make decisions that could entirely doom me without my knowledge, even if I have a perfect understanding of how the game mechanics work. If I choose to tech rapidly and forgo upgrading my military and three squares into the fog of war is Tokugawa with 4 archers that are twice as strong as my strongest military unit (of which I only have 2, one that is acting as a scout), he will declare war on me and destroy me as soon as he finds me. I cannot make informed strategic decisions because of imperfect information in this example and it has a significant effect on the strategic outlook of the game.

Later in that game, I build up a military that consists primarily of knights, a quite strong unit of the medieval era. I go to war with a Catherine, who has been expanding too fast and hasn’t defended her frontier cities well. I have a stack of three knights invading her frontier. My strategy is to grab the high-value cities on her frontier where she has not had time to muster a defense. At the first city, I pit a knight against her measly defenses: a warrior. A knight has triple the attack of the unit she has defending this city (even modified), so I gladly send my knight to crush the city.

But my knight dies and the warrior is unscratched.

What should be a surefire victory has turned into a miserable and costly defeat due to nothing within my power as a player. Chance has stripped my agency.

I’m not suggesting that Civ games should have deterministic combat, I’m simply showing how chance takes away from the strategic agency of the player. Chance can be used appropriately and to good effect in games, but it’s important to understand that it has a deleterious effect on player agency.

Back to the game. Let’s say that I’m playing Civ over a network with a few friends. As the game progresses and we start to encounter one another in the game world, we begin to talk in private conversations about what we should do. Players begin lying to one another about what they have and what they plan to do. Strategies are formed in conjunction and with reference to the relationships players have outside of the game (though the relationships are in reference to the game). The weaker players form an alliance against the strongest player and crush him. Politics, not game mechanics, lead to the defeat of she who was formerly the strongest player. The player with the most skill and knowledge of the game, due to no failing of her manipulation of game mechanics, has been defeated. The strategic space that effects the game expanded beyond the mechanics into the realm of politics—the game mechanics do not mediate the whole scope of gameplay anymore.

Civilization is in two ways a concrete game: Its mechanics are given meaning through their representation of real world phenomena, and its mechanics contradict the “pure” mechanics outlined here and in my previous post on abstract games. Civ is not, though, a “perfectly” or “purely” concrete game because it’s not a particularly good simulation, but it is certainly on the concrete side of the spectrum, well away from games like Chess and Go.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Depth Perception: Casual and Hardcore Views of Depth

A game’s depth can be defined as the amount of “stuff” that the player can learn about the game.

A shallow game has few things to learn. Think of when you first learned algebra. Because you didn’t understand the concepts of algebra, you would engage in a guessing game to find the value of x in simple expressions like “x - 10 = 3.5”. Not long thereafter, your teacher taught you that there was a method you could employ that could obviate the guessing: simply “undo” the operation on the left side and carry its effect over to the right side (“x – 10 + 10 = 3.5 + 10”). Now the guessing game isn’t a game anymore, it’s a rote task. If someone gave you 50 problems of similar complexity to solve, you would previously have had an interesting (debatably) task of excitedly guessing what x might be. Now that you know how to do it, you just mechanically run through the problems subtracting or adding numbers to both sides and receiving an result. There’s nothing left to learn there. So clearly simple algebra isn’t a deep game.

The scary part comes when you realize that you can think of World of Warcraft as algebra. You’ve got a few abilities that you can use and you’ve got enemies to kill. The first few times you fight, you’ll try different methods—essentially trying to guess the answer to “how can I make my relative DPS greater than theirs?” But once you’ve figured out a reasonably effective method, you no longer have to think. You only have to press 1-3-4-2-4-… until the enemy is dead or you are dead. The monotony is only broken when you move to a radically different kind of enemy (usually it’s a difference in magnitude of enemy DPS, so your remaining health will be the only thing to change between the old “easy” enemies and the new “harder” enemies) or when you level up and gain new abilities which may or may not actually impact this process.

Playing WoW through the course of one level doesn’t have much depth. The little bump in depth you get out of advancing doesn’t help for long, either. It’s just like learning that you can undo division with multiplication on the next homework after you mastered undoing addition with subtraction. Regardless of that bump in complexity, you still must solve those same problems (kill those same enemies) 50 times before the teacher will give you a passing grade and let you move on to the next-most-difficult homework (move on to the next level).

There’s a crucial distinction here: Depth is not the number of problems you could conceivably solve, it’s the number of conceivable techniques you could viably use to solve problems.

Players perceive these two different phenomena in MMOs and attribute both of them to the concept of depth.

In easy games like WoW, depth is artificially created through making enemies always too easy. Players are never forced to explore much of the game’s strategy space—even in the kiddie pool there can be a “deep end.”

This definition of depth only serves the “serious fun” or competitive style of gamer. To a casual player, such depth is just annoying. A casual player can’t spend the time to explore the strategy-space—he just wants to move inexorably forward and be tickled by something interesting occsionally as he receives a stream of ego-boosting rewards at a regular clip.

To the casual player, depth becomes the sheer amount of content. The casual player does not care about the advancement and evolution of strategies. They don’t want to have to think that much; games are distractions and ways to pleasantly pass time. Casual players only care that there is more to do—that the pleasant rollercoaster ride continues until he wants it to stop.

So we’re left with two definitions of depth that are useful when designing games for different kinds of players:

  • Having more to do.
    • Character advancement.
    • Game as meditation.
    • Relaxed play.
    • “I must lay 300 more bricks to finish this wall.”
  • Having more to learn.
    • Personal advancement.
    • Game as intellectual exercise.
    • Serious play.
    • “I must learn how to effectively approach enemy positions in Go to improve my early-game.”

Visualizing the Interactions of Depth

I see these two kinds of depth as two faces of a shape that represents the amount of fun that can be had in a game. Casual players look down one face of the shape, their depth is the shapes’ width, while hardcore players look down another face, their depth is the shapes’ height. The two are manifestations of different ways people enjoy games.

This means that games can be seen as two-dimensional objects in “depth-space”. The x-axis represents the amount of content completed, and on the y-axis is strategic understanding. Each shape represents the depth profile of the game—the width of the shape at a certain value of y indicates the amount of content that can be completed with that level of understanding; the height of the shape at a certain value of x represents the amount of knowledge that the player can gain having completed a certain amount of content in the game.

A game like WoW stretches a long way on the x-axis, but only gets high on the y-axis later. Chess, on the other hand, has a significantly taller shape, but there is not much width at any one point along the y-axis. This is because you have to engage with more of the strategy-space (learn more about the game) in order to unlock more content in chess. WoW is wider at all points on the y-axis because there is a lot you can accomplish with even a severely limited amount of strategic knowledge.

This visualization technique is not perfect. Aside from the general abstractness of it (a lack of metrics), it’s definitely not true that the two kinds of depth are orthogonal. Playing through more content usually increases your understanding of the strategy-space, which will gradually advance you along the y-axis naturally until you reach a saturation point that’s probably dictated by your intelligence.

These Depths Converge in the Long-Run

These two conceptions merge as the casual player plays the game more and must confront either the fact that the game is no longer stimulating or the fact that they cannot achieve their goals without digging deeper into the strategy-space. So games aimed at casuals do need to have some degree of traditional depth to sustain them long-term—though casual games are usually aimed at children and non-gamers—people who are not going to spend enough time in the game to hit the “no learning left” issue.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Suddenly, Bioware is Incompetent.

This is one of the few times I’ll jump on an issue that is a hot topic on MMO blogs. I’m doing it now because certain prominent bloggers’ opinions on this topic have been too ridiculous for me to bear. Perhaps Keen’s numbers haven’t been good recently and he wants to start a huge debate to draw links and views?

Bioware has released information on companion characters. For some unknown reason, this fact has led people to believe that Bioware cannot tie their design shoes anymore.

With very little actual information available, people are assuming that Bioware are going to mangle the design of companions and ruin their game by removing one or more “M”s from “MMORPG.”

Arguments against companions:

  1. It throws off rewards because you will get loot as if you were two players.
  2. Who would choose to bring someone along if they’ve already got an AI companion?
  3. Everyone will always have their companion out, so the game will be balance for that, rendering non-companion strategies non-viable.
  4. The game won’t be balanced for rampant companion use, so the game will fall apart as everything becomes extraordinarily easy due to companion use. This makes non-companion strategies non-viable.

All of these complaints are ways of saying that Bioware suddenly is incapable of good design. With even a modicum of thought I can come up with ways to counter every one of those arguments with game mechanics that are easy to implement. This isn’t difficult work or hard thought—this is basic stuff that any self-respecting game designer (or MMO pundit) should be able to figure out.

  1. Parties get loot based on the number of PCs in the group, as done in DDO.
  2. AI companions will always be inferior to players because AIs just aren’t that good at positioning and tactics. As long as NPC companions occupy group slots that players would otherwise occupy, PCs will be preferable over NPCs.
  3. Pet classes already exist in MMOs. Even if the design isn’t great, you could just treat every class in SW:TOR as a pet class. This isn’t great design—but it’s the worst case scenario.

DDO has already implemented a feasible and functioning companion system and the world hasn’t exploded. Why can’t Bioware do the same?

This is yet another instance of people throwing a tantrum because they are incapable of seeing past the tip of their noses. Here, on bold display, is the common approach that everything with which I am not familiar is poison and evil. This kind of punditry is damaging to the discussion and progress of MMOs.

(You should also read Andrew’s great concise post at Of Teeth and Claws. There's also a strong post over at Player vs Developer that further shows good signs for companion systems.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Concrete and Abstract Games

I also arrive at a design philosophy of moderate simulationism in MMOs through an analysis of features that define MMOs as concrete games.

Games can be classified along a continuum from abstract to concrete. The most abstract games, you might call them “pure”, are abstract strategy games. The most concrete game would be life itself. The gamism-simulationism dichotomy that I engage with frequently in my abstract design discussions is parallel to the abstract-concrete continuum. Gamism tends toward abstraction—rules for the game’s sake—and simulationism tends toward the concrete—rules for the metaphor’s sake. MMO design is locked in a struggle between the game and the metaphor; the debate is the center of many design discussions and also the source of many ill-conceived arguments.

Abstract Games

“Abstract” as used in “abstract games” means a lack of reference or relation to the real world—Abstract games’ mechanics do not model or have a significant intended relationship with the real world. Think of an abstract game as conceived and played for its own sake. Any similarities we see between it and the real world are not the sources of design decisions, but simply exist because people relate their world to everything they see (a classic reformulation of “if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”).

779px-Go-Equipment-Narrow-BlackA good example of this is the abstract strategy game of Go (also known as Weiqi or  Baduk). Legend states that Go was invented some 4000 years ago by an counselor to the then emperor of China. The emperor had a son who was a bit dull. He commissioned the counselor to invent a game that his son could play so that he might pick up some degree of mental acuity. How would you design a game if put in the counselor’s situation? It makes the most sense to try to invent a game with simple rules that requires deep thought to play well. To design the game, we’re starting from the very abstract and working our way to mechanics that can be implemented using a few stones and a board with a grid scratched into it. This is demonstrative of how abstract games are conceived.

Abstract games are games designed for the sake of gaming. They do not seek meaning through association with the real world. They give meaning to themselves and their peers. In this way board games can seem utterly trivial to a mature human being unless they genuinely enjoy games (disregarding the social aspect for the sake of discussion).

The “purest” and most extreme abstract games are abstract strategy games. These games have three crucial features:

  • Perfect information is available when the state of the game is fully known by both players. (Note that the state of the metagame does not matter here.)
  • No element of chance can be present in the game mechanics. This means that only the strategizing of the players affects the outcomes of individual in-game actions.
  • Only two players must play the game together. If more players are added, the game becomes political and no longer is purely strategic based on the game mechanics.

We can discern the abstractness of a game by judging how far away from these three features the game strays.

Concrete Games

civ4screen Concrete games are metaphors for parts of real life. Concrete games create the illusion that the laws of the real world exist in the game. Extremely concrete games are in-depth simulations that allow the player to interfere on behalf of some element in the simulation. These games cannot be played on boards or with pieces of wood or stone, they need the computational power of computers to allow them to provide a model of some part of the real world that can allow players to suspend disbelief.

Concrete games have many players, very limited information flow, and are perpetuated by chance.

If you took all chance away from a concrete game, it would most likely fall apart as a game and become quite boring.  Each player would be able to precisely forecast the result of each of their actions, so all of the complex mechanics would boil down the number of viable strategies to a mere pittance. All of the highly situation decisions made in real life that necessitate the use of rare capacities and patterns of thought would be removed from the game, because chance models the interactions of the myriad minute details that a game cannot hope to simulate effectively. Quantum physics has shown us that even the most basic fabric of reality is subject to the whims of fortune. So to simulate (and therefore to be concrete) requires chance.

In real life, information flow is choked by the limits of our perception. A game that hopes to simulate real life in any way must model this stunted flow of information that may be incomplete or outright incorrect.

The vibrancy and ever-newness of our world is due to the fact that billions of people inhabit it. We are able to communicate with millions of people every day using technologies that were invented only decades ago. The effects of millions of individual interactions between diverse peoples leads to en endless stream of situations that would be fun to model and toy with in a game. Concrete games take advantage of this reality.

MMOs are Concrete Games

MMOs are virtual worlds—in no way are they abstract games. Every individual indicator in MMOs is in favor of their classification as concrete games. As such, they benefit from designs that allow simulation to happen. In this way a game can harness the natural processes of the real world that lead to endless fun and interesting situations. To choke an MMO with abstractness is to take away the very best and most natural fun that can be had in worlds full of thousands of people, saddled by necessity with limited information, and brimming with opportunities for serendipity and chance to reap havoc.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thought: “Lived-in” Worlds

Solo players in MMOs point out that they enjoy MMOs because the world feels like people are living in it. Much different than the boring worlds in single-player games, all of those other characters, (probably) with people at their controls, add a certain vibrancy that can’t be found in all those NPCs that stand around all day and repeat themselves to anyone nearby.

Imagine this: A game has AI that can play as effectively as human players. As far as you can tell, humans are at the helms of all these characters—they simply don’t talk much. Would your MMO soloing desires be filled by this game?

Could we create worlds that feel lived-in within single-player (or multiplayer non-massive) games that would then capture a sizable part of World of Warcraft’s market?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reducing and Translating Games

A game, in the abstract, is a set of game bits (like individual actors in the game world) and rules (what those actors can do and what the world does in response). The player uses an interface of some kind to interact with the game. This interface could be any collection of physical or virtual objects: a board and special pieces, cards, a ball, or a computer program and the graphical assets associated with it.

Consider tic-tac-toe. We recognize this game because it consists of a three-by-three grid that is filled with Xs and Os by different players in turn, one per grid slot, until Os or Xs are aligned three-in-a-row. But we can create other games that can be translated directly into tic-tac-toe. Here’s one: we take the numbers between one and nine (inclusive) and take turns picking numbers until one of us has a set of three numbers that sum to 15. The same mechanics underlie these two games—the only difference is the interface.

More complex games cannot be directly translated into other games as easily. They must be broken down into constituents that then are simple enough to be translated.

All this translation shows us that a game’s interface can be separated from its mechanics, but how do we actually describe the mechanics of games? Translating one set of abstractions into another, as we did with tic-tac-toe doesn’t seem to get us anywhere in this endeavor. Mathematics is, in fact, a language in which we can concisely and completely define game mechanics. Mechanics can be torn from the game’s interface and described as an abstract mathematical problem that the player is attempting to solve. I will spare you the exact mathematics here, but any game can be reduced to some composition of mathematical problems.

Math has had several more millennia of exposition than game design, so it can provide our young field with some useful language. Problems in mathematics (more than just “1+x=2”-style problems, but problems like sorting a list of numbers without knowing the exact contents of the list) have varying degrees of complexity. The complexity of a problem is basically its “difficulty” to solve, usually expressed in how the time required to solve the problem grows with respect to the “size” of the problem (the size is, for example, the number of numbers that are in the list we’re trying to sort). Non-trivial games can be reduced into math problems of a complexity class of higher than NP.

(Math nerds please excuse me. This isn’t going to be super-precise because I’m trying to make it understandable without taking 1,000 words.)

NP stands for “Non-deterministic Polynomial”, a polysyllabic train-wreck that alludes to how long it would take an “oracle” machine to guess the solution correctly. A problem of complexity higher than NP (I’m thinking particularly of NP-complete problems here) is intractable for a computer to solve—it would take a computer millions of years to solve even modest varieties of the problem. Computers can only verify that the solution is correct in a reasonable amount of time. Reasonable in the theory of computability is a polynomial relationship between problem size and time. It may take a computer 8 million years to solve a certain NP problem, but the computer would only take 8 seconds to check that a solution is correct.

Great games ask you to solve problems that are NP-complete or harder. It has actually been proven that tetris is an NP-complete problem. You’re doing some very heavy lifting when you play these games—your brain works hard to get as close as possible to solve the problem. The startling part is that this is fun!

Raph Koster talked about complexity theory and games in his AGDC presentation this year. I think it’s a profound truth about games that more game designers should understand and utilize.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Goal Generation in MMOs: The Problem

treadmillGoal generation is fundamentally a social endeavor. In real life, a person’s goals are largely  dictated by the people with which that person socializes. Your friends relate their goals to you and you, to stay friends with them, align your goals; or, if you don’t particularly favor the friendship, you can find other friends onto whom you can project your own goals. Similarly, successful products in market economies manipulate how consumers generate goals so that the goals of the consumer appear to align with (and cooperate with) the goals of the producer. Goal generation is central to the way we live our lives; many philosophers have dedicated themselves to defining the process of goal generation and validating the processes we use and should use to prioritize goals.

Goal generation is as crucial to games as it is to real life. Understanding how games generate goals for players can help us to see better ways to make goal generation a natural and self-perpetuating process that can lead to games with significant staying-power.

MMOs fail at goal generation, a failure that leads to a soul-sucking emptiness that has driven me from almost every MMO I have played.

The player’s obvious long-term goal in an MMO: to reach the end of whatever content is provided. Here we see the root of the theme-park model. The player is conditioned to get from the start to the end by society and prior games. Limited linear static goal design is a carry-over from single-player games—it follows directly from single-player game design where game designers and game writers create goals for the player based on the motivations that the player’s character should have. The story (and, perhaps, game mechanics) supply these motivations to the player’s character and these motivations are portrayed to the player through cutscenes, dialog, and character behavior. In great single-player games, the motivations of the player’s character are so well-portrayed that the player’s own motivations in the game align with the character’s. This is rarely the case in MMOs.

Character motivation in MMOs is a thin veneer at best—it’s usually completely absent. Because of the broken symbiosis of character advancement and storytelling, character motivation is relegated to a minor role if any. The PC is not considered a unique element of the world that pushes the story forward. MMO design treats each PC the same as every other PC (although sometimes only so far as the PC is a certain race or class). Content is static, simple, and manually designed. Any motivation that the player concocts in an attempt to roleplay is a handicap against character advancement because the only power the player has over his character’s motivation is manifested in avoiding certain pieces of content. The choice isn’t between ways to effect the world—the choice is deciding whether to participate. This choice can be valid, but it represents very few of the choices a hero would feasibly make.

In a single-player game, static linear content makes sense. The player can assume the role of a character who changes the world, and those changes can be relayed back to the player through story events. Limiting the goals of the player’s character works within the framework of the character’s motivations.

In an MMO, using static linear content does not make sense. Designs can use this approach and most theme-park games do, but these designs need to work around the fundamental disconnect between static content and a world that should be changing as players grow their characters. The player’s character moves through physical locations as she advances, progressing towards the eng-game, but those locations are not actually changed. Physical space in MMOs is used to act like the progression of time and events in a single-player game.

Goal generation in theme-park MMOs places the player on a treadmill. This must happen in order to have a world that does not change due to characters’ actions. Goal generation in theme-park MMOs will always be reduced to a grind because it does not demonstrate actual progress. The player maneuvers his character through content to reach whatever advancement goals she might have, but she will ultimately be inhabiting the exact same immutable and unchanging world at every second. When the scenery moves but you’re actually still in the exact same place, the feeling of progress changes to disillusionment. The facade is clear; only our innocence protected us from this understanding when we first entered, wide-eyed, into MMORPG worlds. We can never get our innocence back, regardless of how a game like Aion makes it tantalizing. No matter how fancy a treadmill may be, running on it will never get you to a new destination.

What is the solution? Clearly we must explore dynamic world design. My articles on accountability and simulationism provide clues at where I’d like to go here. I will explore my ideas for dynamic, self-renewing goal generation systems in a future post.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November: Stuff to Read and Play

Here’s one of those oh-so-useless posts where I link you to a bunch of random pages that you probably will never read or care about. The idea here is to spread some good stuff that I’ve read in the hope that I don’t have to cover the same material, but instead can reference it freely without feeling like I’m leaving everyone behind.

I’ll also point you to some games I’m enjoying.

I think I’m going to start doing this monthly instead of just providing a “what I’m playing” list that tends to be even more ludicrously useless.

To Read

To Play

  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms X. It’s a niche title and certainly isn’t for everyone, but a game that does this style of play right would win my undying gratitude by providing me with thousands of hours of blissful enjoyment. There are so many things about RoTKX that sit right with me—it needs its own article. Too bad no one gives this game the attention it deserves.
  • Board Space, a place for board games that will destroy your mind in the best way possible. It isn’t pretty, but boardspace allows you to play some very cool minimalistic strategic board games online. They’ve got 30 games up now. And it’s free.
  • AI War. I’ve already given this game enough praise. Just play it. If you love strategy games, you won’t regret it. (Analysis articles on AI War are being assembled and should be posted this week and next.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Terrible Idea: Corporate Speak

The world is full of corporate speak and euphemisms. Global warming, itself a buzzphrase of great power, has been replaced by “climate change.” People no longer die, they instead  “pass away.” MMOs are “cutting edge” games where “thousands of players” can “adventure” in a “huge immersive world” full of “amazing” sights and sounds.

Go to Alganon’s website and try to find information about the game that is concrete, significant, and useful. Alganon’s marketing department clearly took seriously their courses in saying nothing. Even when they’re talking about key features that would probably interest players, they use vague language and avoid details at all costs.

The game is in beta—I understand that the site won’t be chock full of detail, but it’s remarkably difficult to get excited about a game that seems so unexcited about itself. The bovine stirkus needs to stop. It doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s better to show off what’s great about your game concretely instead of reciting the same platitudes we’ve heard a million times from all of the failed MMOs that clog the internet.

And then read the interview with “visionary” David Allen, who does a “commendable” job of “defending” his MMORPG.

Now go to City of Heroes’ site’s game info section. Behold actual information on display. You can read through this site and gain beyond a basic understanding of how the game works.

I’d rather a game have no information available than for the same canned jargon to be rammed down my throat again.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Difficulty, an Unsolvable Problem

frustration Most simply, difficulty is inversely proportional to the chance of success for a given action. When you try to do something that has a low chance of success and claim that it’s difficult to accomplish that task. But what if that task is rolling eleven thousand consecutive 6s on a 6-sided die?

The primary question regarding difficulty in game design should be whether the difficulty of the game has a positive or negative effect on how fun the game is to play. There is no correct difficulty in a broad sense, only levels of difficulty that enhance or deaden the fun of playing through events in the game. The target audience’s skill-level and familiarity with similar games can also play a significant part in what difficulty is appropriate.

Worthwhile difficulty that leads to fun requires:

  • Agency. The player needs to have a significant say in the outcome and/or set-up of the difficult event.
  • Alignment of Expectations. The scenario must have a difficulty that is in keeping with the story surrounding the event and the mechanics the player has learned and utilized prior. Difficulty is contextual—difficulty is significantly more fun when it is justified by its context.
  • Sufficiency. The event needs to be non-trivial and the goals or advancement conditions need to be physically achievable.

When the player’s role in the proceedings is reduced significantly, the player’s expectations are disappointed, or when goals are unreachable or trivial to accomplish, the difficulty of the game severely impacts the game’s quality.

Games can also be designed in a way such that they are interesting to play multiple times, but never is there true failure. Mouseguard, a tabletop roleplaying game, does not directly penalize players for failing to make high-enough dice rolls. Instead, a low die roll leads to a complication. The game master shunts the players progress through the campaign sideways down a different path instead of sending him sprawling backwards. In this case, difficulty is not about failure, but instead of progress. A difficult game would be one where moving forward towards a positive conclusion has a low chance of occurring, whereas reaching a lukewarm (or worse) ending is highly likely.

Player motivation plays a critical role in judging difficulty, as well. A player who is aiming for easy fun will not want to be confronted by even a well-set-up difficult encounter. A player who likes to be challenged and forced to push his abilities to their limits would quickly grow bored with a game that has a series of appropriately easy encounters.

In MMOs, we encounter an unsolvable difficulty issue. Some players want the game to be easy for them, but difficult for others. Players feel special when they’re doing something not everyone else has done, and they relish this feeling. There is no way to accomplish such a difficulty curve, so MMOs tend towards being absurdly easy as a compromise.

Fully sidestepping the issue of difficulty, there are plenty of gamers in the MMO space who have no interest in chances of success; They are happy meditating and cavorting with their friends (or finding new friends) in a world that offers good prospects for escapism.

MMOs are doomed to have difficulty issues primarily because they intend to appeal to too wide an audience. It’s in the best interest of MMO businessmen to make the game trivial so that anyone can play it for as long as they can remain mesmerized. So we’re stuck with distorted difficulty terrain and interminable arguments that can have no resolution. The only way to dodge the problem is to be less massive—to fit a niche (as I’ve previously pointed out, this will be the future of good MMOs).