Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Broader Community

I support the Epic Slant Forums as a location for MMO pundits and fans to have serious, directed discussions about MMO design, hype, playing, and blogging. Please take a trip over to the ESF, register, and put in your thoughts. It’d be great to have a community where people serious about MMOs can gather and have discussions that are truly worth reading. I’ll do my best to make ESF such a place. I hope you will, too.

In no way is ESF going to supplant TATI as a place where I record my thoughts and ideas. ESF is solely a place to have short-form, more free-flowing discussions on a wider variety of audience-determined (instead of writer- or editor-determined) topics.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Play is Extreme Simulationism

In the end, the most lasting effect of the Tools of the Mind studies may be to challenge some of our basic ideas about the boundary between work and play. Today, play is seen by most teachers and education scholars as a break from hard work or a reward for positive behaviors, not a place to work on cognitive skills. But in Tools of the Mind classrooms, that distinction disappears: work looks a lot like play, and play is treated more like work.

-Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? by Paul Tough

The boundary between work and play is blurred by the hellish commitments MMO players make to their guilds and online friends. Players willingly spend thousands of hours in-game, having fun in very few of those hours, and later find a huge, soul-sucking void in their past where one, individual, mediocre game once stood proud. Play can become life—perhaps this is the much fabled immersion everyone talks about. But what does immersion mean when the most soul-sucking game is probably one of the least immersive?

Play is a model of life. Play trains us to perform actions in the real-world. Play is a safe environment to learn about and practice behaviors that will benefit us later in our lives. Do MMOs take advantage of this? There are some abstract behaviors like guild leadership that can translate into leading other organizations. But most often useless memorization of irrelevant sets of stats and game mechanics decides the victor.

What if we made mechanics in MMOs more like the mechanics in real life? When does the simulation stop being fun and start being work?

Imagine being a blacksmith in an MMO. Imagine that you are actually a blacksmith in that world. Do you have time to wander around the country-side hitting bunnies with sharpened metal? No. You’re busy doing your job. You make so many swords, barrels, horseshoes a day and that is your life. You do it for 20 or 30 years after your apprenticeship ends and you die. Is that fun? It’s certainly repetitive. But there’s a lot of learning, skill, and knowledge there. Certainly a game wouldn’t force the player to stay logged in for the entirety of the character’s “day” in the world, but I don’t think that a player logging in for an hour or two and actually doing some smithing—and not clicking on a button that says “smelt copper bars” and waiting for a progress bar to fill, but actual game mechanics that emulate the process of creating a bar of copper out of some ore—is bereft of fun.

You could learn a lot about the world you live in through playing such a game. You can have fun while you learn—you can have fun by learning!

Imagine making a sword over the course of a half-hour and when you’re done with it, you have the knowledge that you actually made that and that someone else’s character’s life (permadeath would be crucial if we’re going to get serious about dramatic play here) depends on its quality. That is so much more meaningful than spending three hours smacking kobolds that’ll respawn thirty seconds later; and there are real world takeaways from that session aside from some money disappearing from your pocket every month.

I’m pushing past moderate simulationism here, but I see definite possibilities for games beyond A Tale in the Desert to harness real-world processes to make crafting—and the rest of the game—more fun, more rewarding, and more real.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Reciprocity Fallacy

People will return favors without thinking much about it. A vague sense of justice pervades how people behave in society. It’s not the justice of law, though—it’s a more abstract justice that only has one rule: if someone does something for me, I must do something for them. The values of these two actions need not balance, though usually action and counter-action are not vastly disproportionate.

You can harness this fallacious tendency when designing guild, party, and other team play systems. Encourage players  to give gifts to other players—you may even want to make generosity an advantageous strategy by rewarding guilds and players who help out non-aligned players and newbies. When players receive gifts or favors from other players, the receiver will feel a subconscious (if not conscious) sense of being beholden to continue playing so that they can return the favor. This is the positive side of the “revenge” motivator in games. Even if players don’t remember who their benefactors are, they will have a quiet sense of responsibility towards your game world in general.

Harnessing reciprocity  in design encourages players to make the game world more alive. Players will interact more if interaction yields positives for all sides. When interaction is a beneficial experience, players that would otherwise keep to themselves will willingly reach out and become part of the community. Breaking the tunnel-vision of solo play results in a significant increase in time spent in-game. When you have other people with whom you’ve developed these positive relationships, you are going to work to keep those relationships up more than you would if you were purely thinking rationally of the risk and reward of solo play.

The effect of reciprocity is dulled somewhat by anonymity, but it is a powerful force—it’s the intangible force that binds guilds and keeps people logging on every night.

(Thanks go to Raph Koster and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini for highlighting the Reciprocity Fallacy.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meta-PvP: A Strength of Victory System

I’ve been toying with the idea of a PvP MMO game that doesn’t involve players fighting one another directly.

The game would consist missions that players can undertake to combat other player factions or NPC factions. Missions could be initiated by players who run factions or NPCs. Each mission would involve a scenario or a set of scenarios where a player (and perhaps a few NPCs under his control to some extent) or group of players fights a group of NPCs of the opposing faction while trying to accomplish various objectives. There would be multiple scenario types including “deathmatch”, escort, protect the item, obtain the item, etc. Certain numbers of each type of scenario would need to be completed within a certain time-frame to complete a faction-wide mission—for example, to take a city/town/hamlet/farm. As the sides complete scenarios, they are awarded points based on their performance in the scenarios. The side that obtains the highest score accomplishes their goal, be it defending or attacking.

Nowhere in this system are players required to lose a battle they participate in. The system actually works perfectly fine if both sides win every single encounter in which players take part. As long as the NPC AIs are good—and they might not have to be much better than Darkfall NPC AI with some added behaviorlets—players can enjoy playing through challenging content and succeeding without being teabagged by 12-year-olds while accomplishing broader, world-changing objectives.

Can a system like this allow people to have their dynamic world cake and eat it too without it being a newb-repelling niche experience? Could such a system bring dynamic world, sandbox PvP to the masses?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Grinds I Don’t Mind: Dynasty Warriors 6

This game and the others in the Dynasty Warriors series have immense replayability for me. I grew to love the Romance of the Three Kingdoms through playing this game and its predecessors.

The defining oddity in Dynasty Warriors titles: the core gameplay is really repetitive and “grindy”, yet I find myself playing through the same battles many times without getting bored. Individual enemies are seldom challenging to beat and, when they are challenging, they are usually “turbo-charged” officers who have the same mediocre-at-best AI but have ridiculously beefy stats. Once you get past the visceral coolness of wading through massive numbers of enemies, slashing as you go, the game seems to be quite a grind.

If the game were only a button-mashing beat-em-up, I would not enjoy it. Dynasty Warriors games have an added dynamic of choosing what path you take through each individual open-ended battle—even though you can be fairly certain of victory, the way that you can accomplish victory can vary significantly depending on which character you’re playing. If you play the same battle from the same side, but choose a different character, you may have a completely unique experience while still affecting the whole battlefield. Your impact on the battlefield is in evidence. It’s addictive and enjoyable.

Within a battle, there are numerous events that are triggered if certain conditions are met. This is a fun system not because it is particularly adaptive, but because it affords the battles more uniqueness and it invites you to “hack” it by doing actions in odd orders. It’s fun to learn the dynamics of a battle and then play it again and take advantage of your knowledge. The CPU doesn’t react reasonably as much as I’d like, but sabotaging an enemy force is surprisingly fun.

Why don’t I mind the grind in Dynasty Warriors 6?

  • Battle events are varied depending on my success or failure at certain objectives leading to a somewhat dynamic battlefield.
  • The visceral thrill of combat is sufficient—the graphics and presentation are good enough to keep the grind mildly pleasant.
  • The grind is punctuated with accomplishing objectives. This is a “killing with purpose”-style grind similar to early WoW and Aion.
  • Deciding where to go and what to do next within an open-ended battle at the strategic game layer involves enough in the way of interesting decisions to prevent the grind from becoming monotonous.
  • Whatever I do will have noticeable affects on the course of the battle.
  • I genuinely enjoy the Romance of the Three Kingdoms settings. Seeing the characters brought to life in the game world is worth more to me than it would be if I was not connected to the story.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

GDC Austin: Friday

Friday was a great day. I don't know how to express my day on Friday other than I feel like it was crafted for me. Playfish, Raph Koster, and Damion Schubert.

Koster doesn't have slides up yet, but in a nutshell he says that games are about training the intuitive part of the brain. And to do that we look to mathematical/computational complexity. Games in the NP and higher complexity realms are very engaging. I heard all my CS professors shouting with exuberance. He used Karp's 21 NP-Complete problems as a reference, and boiled down every successful and fun game to some form of an NPC problem. My question then: is any game modeling an NP-C problem reducible to SAT?

Schubert pretty much convinced me that today's MMOs need solo aspects.

And Sebastien de Halleux from Playfish convinced me that I should be making Flash games.

Now to catch up on all my work... (and play Aion)

Friday, September 18, 2009

GDC Austin: Thursday MMO Extravaganza

Thursday saw the Blizzard keynote speech, which was not a very informative session. It was the Universe Behind World of Warcraft, so Brack and Pearce spent their 60 minutes talking about how Blizzard is organized administratively--everything from staffing to the number of CPUs contained in their server blades. The stats were interesting, and really didn't need a keynote, but the most interesting tidbit is that prior to WoW Blizzard had 400 employees. Today they have over 4600.

The disclaimer to the audience was that every studio and company will have a different team structure to them. Blizzard even said that they will reorganize an entire department if they change the people in director or manager positions. The same disclaimer was said at the BioWare session, Come and See the Elephant, given by Bill Dalton. So given that these structures are highly subjective and change frequently, what is the point on spending two-thirds of a lecture on volatile and useless information?

The day wasn't all bad though. Aside from networking with some very nice folks at the Expo, we attended a very fast-paced, highly technical talk on Texturing Massive Terrain. The senior graphics programmer at Blizzard, Colt McAnlis, gave a very informative presentation about optimizations, compression algorithms, and some dangling questions on texture synthesis. I'm not going to post those notes because they are intense.

Another notable session was Petur Johannes Oskarsson's case study on EVE's player elected council. My notes follow:
  • the Alliance system was the result of Corps forming emergent alliances without formal system
  • CCP wanted to implement governance for New Eden
  • decided to design democracy based on Iceland's democracy
  • the proposal was written as an academic paper and critiqued by Bartle, EVE's fanfest, and eventually forums and fansites
  • the biggest issue that came up was the definition of "democracy"
  • resolution was to spam the document with the "you don't have any power"; players were fine
  • Council of Stellar Management (CSM)
  • - 9 reps; candidates run under RL names; 6 month terms; 2 term limit
  • - general, anonymous election outside of EVE available to all EVE players
  • - liaison between CCP and players
  • - have forums; CSM reviews topics and after deliberation presents issue to CCP
  • - council is flown to Iceland to meet CCP occasionally
  • 1st CSM election: 64 apps; 11.08% turnout; 24.6k votes
  • 2nd: 42 apps; 8.61% turnout; 20k votes
  • 3rd: 40 apps; 9.74% turnout; 27.8k votes
  • low turnouts, but raw votes actually highest in latest election
  • but what can these metrics be measured against? how many elections have happened in MMOs? 3.
  • political parties are forming: Voice of Reason
  • no attempt from CCP at censoring or directing the topics raised by the CSM
  • CSM can request review on customer support polices and forum moderation, but can't bring up specific cases
  • role has expanded to two-way communication:
  • - CSM used to gather Apocrypha pre-release impressions
  • - presented with exploit report prior to releasing to public
  • these councils need trust to work
  • - in person meetings are a must
  • - NDAs help create trust
  • future of CSM? (these were just random thoughts by Oskarsson)
  • - earmark small budget for good blogs, fansites, or communities
  • - possibly increase number of reps as EVE population grows
  • - give Dust 514 players a voice?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

GDC Austin: Wednesday Flash & Business

After all those writer sessions, I was leery of going to another one on Wednesday. In the event that I don't find a programming job at a game company by 2010, I'm seriously going to explore the Indie model.

We decided to hit up some of the Indie summit lectures and the Flash developement ones, and the non-summit sessions began on this day also so these notes contain some technical and business talks. Even though Dave Mark's presentation was technical and related to AI, it was also a very good design lecture--one of the best we've been at thus far.

Premium Flash Games by Daniel Cook
  • traditional money in Flash comes from Advergames, working for hire for portals, or collecting ad revenue with Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) of $0.00035
  • you could ask for money from the players instead: acquire customers; create value; charge money
  • your game is valuable
  • there are various payment systems available: Mochi coins, Kongregate; gamersafe
  • Purchase Loop: Play Game -> Get Currency -> Buy Stuff -> Play Game
  • areas to charge money:
  • - Time poor: accelerators; selling currency; utility items
  • - Money poor: advertising; dual currency
  • - Status: aesthetic items; high visibility
  • - More of the same: time gate; content gate; subscriptions
  • how to generate value in game?
  • most Flash games are low value
  • make a hobby, not fast food
  • use in-house metrics, not the portal ratings
  • need at least 4/5 on the Fun Scale
  • need to keep customers in order to retain revenue stream
  • - build a brand
  • - create a website
  • you can actually release the same game multiple times, just change the first 10 mins or plot, or minor tweaks
  • game is actually a service
  • Facebook, portals, mobile devices are views on the game
  • since it's a service you can't think "done!" and move on

Storytelling interview with Erik Wolpaw and Marc Laidlaw (Valve)
  • game stories are very much integrated at Valve
  • - e.g. the train mechanic was required by level design but was used again in the intro to Half-Life
  • a lot of magic happens in level design; you can give all dialog to level designers but that is just to get them excited and imagine what is possible in the world (lore-wise)
  • do anything to facilitate staying in the game
  • - cutscenes are a no-no
  • - no interrupts at all
  • - what info is so important that you need to tell me right now?! (they made a joke about interrupting someone having sex to read them a short story)
  • the broken panel hint/foreshadowing in Portal was seemingly accidental; it portrayed this "corrupt world" or fascade, but it was mainly to hint at the 2nd half of the game
  • on the Bioshock audio tapes: if optional story elements are important enough, then why aren't they in the main part of the game?
  • a lot of emotion comes form animators or coders
  • storytelling is a team effort

Flash Multiplayer case study with Corey Bridges
  • Flash is usually pre-loaded; this leads to large download times
  • slow animations, and slower with more stuff on the screen
  • Flash handles input slowly, esp. the mouse
  • can be a memory hog
  • usability challenges: controls, UI, authentication/login
  • market challenge: do casual players even want synchronous multiplayer games?

MMO AI by Dave Mark
  • goal: make PvE feel like PvP
  • how do traditional NPCs make decisions?
  • - "aggro" -> really the player is telling the AI when to attack
  • - tank, healer, dps paradigm surfaces
  • - removes enemy dynamicity and automony
  • - to the players, fights become: "read the script... play your part"
  • all the agents have the same model, same reaction
  • we want a variety of reactions, similar to real life
  • we don't need to know why, but differences do exist
  • we don't want it to be completely random though
  • use a simple formula which constructs weighted randoms to select a reaction
  • for groups of NPCs: take a head count (allies vs enemies); judge the perceived strength of the opposition; HP; proximity to home/leader (morale); any other metric
  • calculate individually the action of an NPC (fight, retreat, charge, flank, etc.)
  • repeat periodically
  • the result would be that the players seen one NPC run away; a few mins later they watch another one flee; then 2 more; and then the whole group breaks
  • how to do target selection? (to break the tank, healer, dps paradigm)
  • use a "Tactical Manager" entity which gives orders to NPCs
  • TM might even have goals: "protect x" or "attack y"
  • it can be reactive (reposition NPCs if some die), or proactive (charge the PCs)
  • you can even have Strategy Manager to give orders to Tactical Managers
  • influences maps: store relevant data in underlying grid; periodically update
  • you can track PC locations and spawn ambush parties on roads or spawn rarer NPCs in low populated areas -> "strategic disposition"
  • influence maps can be used by dynamic quest givers
  • - game can keep track of mob locations and key locations or landmarks
  • - "groups of orcs are east of X, north of Y" etc.
  • you can have a much more "dynamic world" were certain NPC factions will more towards towns, away from towns, towards prey, or away from predators

Browser MMOGs with Nils-Holger Henning, Scott Kinzie and Samuel Loretan
  • need to hook players in the first 30s
  • need small Flash downloads, fast load times
  • can't really go full screen
  • more transactions come in through SMS (these games are primarily in Europe)
  • more revenue comes in through credit card
  • different games for different people

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

GDC Austin: Tuesday Writers Summit

We spent our time on Tuesday hitting up sessions in the Game Writers Summit. Interesting points were brought up, some more original than others. I'll write up my notes here, but I was surprised at how infrequently game writers actually play games or know what the next step is in their medium. I didn't say everyone, but there are many focused on falling into the same pitfalls they are trying to avoid.

I'm going to list the authors of these sessions rather than their titles because often the titles were misleading.

I am leaving out one session because it was in a bad format, and the moderator couldn't get past his agenda. He opted to stop a beneficial conversation in order to move on to his next small-group question. I know my explanation is vague, but it was a bunch of writers sitting around in tables talking about morality in games and missing the point completely (at least at my table).

Aaron Oldenburg
  • counseling as a model for interactive narrative
  • challenging mechanics trivialize narrative (Mots: This is the point the morality folks missed.)
  • silhouettes as conversation choices rather than seeing speech options
  • player doesn't know exactly what they've said
  • they fill in the gaps--story grows in their imagination
  • non sequitur responses also create gaps

Stephen Brock Schafer
  • theater metaphor for the conscious and unconscious
  • game image is the stage--the conscious
  • the stage actors interact with the audience (unconscious) to form richer experiences
  • even if we have a design to have "open endedness" or the illusion of (in terms of story elements; "if I am Oedipus and want to take a bath in jam..."), the technological resources to manifest that design are not present
  • you can't express all those emotions without procedurally generated animations
  • you can't have NPCs saying all this dynamic dialog without good text-to-speech

Steve Danuser & Tracy Seamster (NB: This pertains to MMOs)
  • nobody wants to read what writers write
  • Play is the shared experience: communal narrative or dialogue
  • MMO challenges:
  • - story arcs without conclusions; need to keep threads dangling
  • - lack of single protagonist: everyone is a hero
  • - pacing is up to the player
  • Solutions:
  • - don't cross playstyles in an arc (solo to group to raid)
  • - provide satisfaction to players with different playstyles
  • - "build a soap opera"
  • - frame the narrative to emphasize teamwork
  • - e.g. building towers in eq2; sunwell opening in wow
  • - don't trick the player into believing they are the world's only hero
  • - narrow focus: don't Christmas Tree
  • - create urgency with event-based or time-limited quests
  • player stories are more memorable than anything the writer will tell
  • not about the written word; it's about the experience
  • quest journals: good intentions, but where is the focus among 100s of quests?
  • non-verbal story telling elements to create atmosphere and mood
  • - dark portal in Hellfire
  • - scar through Blood Elf starting zones

Mary De Marle
  • what does a game writer do?
  • - help develop game story
  • - write dialogs
  • players say, "story getting in the way of the fun"
  • goal of a story-based game: make the player live writers' story
  • won't work if story and gameplay are separate
  • the player story conveyed through: mechanics, levels, placement of game challenges, NPCs, ...
  • Who's really creating the player's story?
  • - core mechanics: designers
  • - levels: level designers
  • - NPC behaviors, movements: AI programmers
  • - look and feel of the world: artists
  • - sound
  • The writer is the "keeper of the story logic"
  • - ensures the story remains consistent across all other disciplines
  • How to make stories into game stories:
  • - divide into playable sequences
  • - dissect intentions so other disciplines have clear understanding of the story logic
  • - how many "blocks of gameplay" are needed to portray intention?
  • - writer sits back and listens to designers and artists discuss blocks

Monday, September 14, 2009

GDC Prelude

After a very uneventful journey, Evizaer and I are here in Austin for GDC! We also just had the best salsa we've ever had.

Of all things I could forget, I left my camera on my desk at home. I'm irked about it since GDC was one of the reasons I purchased it.

Regardless, I plan on taking notes on all the lectures and panels I attend. We are still ironing out a schedule. It's looking like we might diverge occasionally.

I'm steering a Flash/indie route in case I don't land a job in the next few months. But some of the other talks dealing with MMOs we plan on attending:
Some of them are technical, but we like that stuff :)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Better MMOs in Three Words

TED talks are some of the most inspirational pieces of video I have witnessed throughout my travels on the Internet. Dan Pink’s talk tickled me a couple of days ago because it articulated exactly what I thought were the design principles that will steer the next generation of MMOs. He presented three words as the keys to higher knowledge worker productivity and happiness: Autonomy, Master, and Purpose. It turns out these three words crystallize the design guidelines I have been thinking about and working on for at least a year.


Let players enjoy what they want to enjoy. Give them the ticket to a place where they want to be and let them have a ball. Barriers like long vertical advancement may make more money, but they lead to less fun. But if we harness Autonomy well, we don’t need long vertical advancement because the well-designed game engages the player in a happy cycle of finding goals that the player thinks are fun and interesting to solve—and this goal-renewal will happen organically.


Give players the tools they need to learn to accomplish goals that they want to accomplish. Learning is crucial. Players get excited when they master a difficult task or encounter a unique challenge and complete it. Without sufficient mastery being possible, games become boring and trivial.

Yes, this does echo Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. I agree with him that learning is what makes games fun. Mastery is all about learning.


Tie together player actions with broader purposes. Allow players to create social structures that are purpose-driven and suited to do what players want to do. The game tasks need to be tied together by larger goals shared among players. A success or failure shared with others can become a great memory and a reason to keep playing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Harnessing Familiarity to Breed Excitement

I enjoyed playing Lord of the Rings Online for the three months I played. I didn’t get a character to max level, but I did bring a Captain and a Minstrel to around level 40. I found that once I had chosen a character class and set out into the game world, playing the character was fun and the content was good enough that I had little problem soloing my way through most of the character advancement I saw and engaging in limited group play when it became appropriate. The standard MMO leveling process that LotRO leads its players through is familiar to me, so playing the game was a comfortable fit.

Where LotRO failed: Never did I fully grasp the capabilities and intended roles of each class. It seemed to me that the classes had a diversity of abilities to fill different roles to varying—mostly quite small—degrees. Every class can solo effectively and every class has some usefulness in a group scenario—probably more so than in WoW—but I did not find myself getting excited about potentially playing any other class. Never did I look at their abilities and think that such a class would be able to fill the role I’d like to fill in a group while being fun to play solo.

Why did I feel this way? Because the classes in LotRO do not feel familiar to me. If they do not feel familiar, my expectations don’t match up with reality. The Minstrel class is an instructive case of this. Minstrels (or Bards) in Dungeons and Dragons and in most RPGs are utility characters that use their song to buff friends and use their guile to manipulate NPCs. Bards have a small cadre of arcane magic they can use, but those incantations are usually tricks to help them with their previously stated roles. In LotRO, Minstrels are basically clerics. This dissonance forced me to throw out my knowledge about the roles and goals that a Bard or Minstrel should have—I cannot be excited about the potentiality of playing a class of which I have no ground-level understanding. Excitement occurs only when you can project an interesting and vital future for the decisions you make—if you can’t perform this projection, the dissonance that results saps excitement and, in my case, my motivation to roll a different character. I find myself in a similar situation with every class in LotRO.

I should be able to answer this question: “What is this class designed to do well and how will it do that?” If I can’t, my motivation to play the game suffers significantly. If I can’t answer that question even after playing the game for two months, there must be a problem there.

It doesn’t matter how well-designed and balanced a game’s classes are: if I can’t get excited about starting a new character, I will not care.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

LoL Beta Keys

I currently have 2 LoL beta keys to give away. If you would like one and are not a scrub, send me an email edit: all gone. First come first serve, or as one of my professors would say, "a FIFO stack." /facepalm

Edit: All gone!

CCP to Social Network EVE

Evizaer hates it when I post gaming news, but since it is related to something I talked about, I'm going to do it anyway:
As social networking seems to be the buzzword of the new millennium, EVE steps up to the plate by introducing COSMOS, a social networking framework that allows players to create Facebook-like pages for their EVE characters, allowing them to maintain friend lists, write blogs, update their status, send each other messages and upload pictures. E-mail sent ingame can be read by the recipient through the website. Corporations and alliances will also have their own page.

Why am I not surprised that CCP is the one to start in this direction? (Champions Online doesn't count because Twitter doesn't count.)

By the way, what I said was:
I think MMOs and Social Networks should merge, and they'd both be better for it.

How awesome would it be to have a web-facing aspect to your favorite MMO? You could still "friend" all your non-gaming acquaintances, upload your RL photos and game screenshots to albums, tag your guildmates or relatives, and update your status or microblog. "Going to Boston on Monday. Won't be in game." Now your family and guild know where you are.

Almost there!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

MMOs Evolve in an Elaborative Way

MMO evolution is in a stage of elaboration. The game mechanics in RPGs have reached a stage of development where we generally know what works, though the specific applications of single-player and tabletop RPG mechancs to the MMO vein are still a work in progress. Elaboration shows in the fact that each successful game offers players more to do than the last. The standard activities in MMOs are each being built with increasing intricacy. This intricacy is aimed at producing the highest probability of the players having fun and getting what they want. Camping mobs was supplanted by quests, static quests were gradually replaced by instances and, perhaps, will later be replaced by Guild Wars 2’s “Events” system.

Elaboration is a process that relies on familiarity, because without a simpler form from which to build,  creation results. A raw creation is an unproven attempt which has a significant chance of outright failure because the outcomes of implementing a creation are significantly less predictable than the outcomes of implementing an idea that has been tested and elaborated upon for several generations of games.

Think of the evolution of certain apes several millions of years ago. Did the evolutionary process yield survivable, successful creatures by flailing about and coming up with radical new ways to solve problems that were already somewhat solved? You can clearly see the similarities between chimpanzees and gorillas, the differences between the species aren’t vast swaths of new features on a similar basic vertebrate structure, the differences are elaborative changes that built on past partial successes and honed the features of the individual apes for survival in specific environments.

There are two ways to utilize familiarity to effectively elaborate game mechanics:

  1. Use unfamiliar methods to achieve familiar goals.
  2. Achieve unfamiliar goals by using familiar methods.

There are two other permutations of goal and method familiarity that I did not list above. Neither of them afford a designer noticeable advantages in a scenario where elaboration is the guiding evolutionary pattern. Using familiar methods to achieve familiar goals is better described as “cloning” a preceding game. Using unfamiliar methods to achieve unfamiliar goals is almost assuredly creation and not elaboration.

The goals in MMOs are quite standardized. The metaphor is of living in another world as a being with extraordinary abilities. This means that the goals players will have, in their most abstract forms, will be very similar between games. The game designer exercises their abilities in designing the necessary sub-goals that can lead to the achievement of abstract, standard goals.

The methods of achieving goals in MMORPGs are the game mechanics that the designers implement to mediate the interaction of the player characters with the game world. The tools designers to interact with the game world are very limited in the popular style of MMORPG, so elaboration can easily lead to gameplay that is significantly more fun. We’ve seen MMOs get more fun over the past ten years, and that trend should continue. Designers need to mind the gap between cloning and elaboration.

After getting through all this abstract talk of elaboration, the question becomes what exactly is familiar to players.

What cases can you think of where good familiarity factors have aided elaboration to create great mechanics? World of Warcraft is the first to pop to my mind—that explains its wild success. What about the rest of the market, though: which games do you think elaborate and which simply clone?

I’d love to hear cases where unfamiliar goals combined with unfamiliar methods have led to success, as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Social Competition

How highly do we value uniqueness in our RPG characters? I think we all want to be heard.

I was playing a female Draenei hunter with Evizaer even though I already have one. Same model, same professions. A few days ago, I was planning on transferring the older, level 43 hunter to our current server. I wanted to do this because she has a Nightsaber mount, the Furbolg wand, and pretty high Mining/Engineering (it's hard to keep up professions with RAF). But the rational part of my brain kicked in, and since I suspect we will only hit 48 by the time we head off to GDC Austin and then Aion, I decided against the transfer.

That Nightsaber mount is special. I remember going to the newbie Night Elf area and doing every Darnassus quest I could find. I did the same thing for a little Gnome mage I have because I don't like the appearance of the elephant nor Mechostrider mounts. But at the same time those accomplishments uniquely identify those two characters.

Achievement is also expressed though generational items, often earned during time-limited events. Wearing a Pumpkin Head in FFXI said "I was there". FFXI is without a doubt a much more social game than WoW. Players had casual clothing that they would wear in town. I had a very clownish costume of a Pumpkin Head, a blue kimono, and white slacks which I would often substitute with a Rusty Subligar. Here is an example of how ridiculous I often made myself look with the subligar.

It was a statement. Among all the Hume Dark Knights with face/hair model #3, I was the guy who wouldn't wear pants. I was also a walking trophy shelf. I never did any end game raiding in FFXI; event gear was all that I could show off.

In WoW 1.x, standing around in IF with all my fancy raid gear was enough to set me apart. Even if I did manage to obtain clown gear, I dare not remove the trophies of my accomplishments. During guild raids, I wasn't that unique snowflake anymore; everyone had uber gear. Thus I frequently brought "toys" from all the holiday events: snowballs, moon beams, pets, a reindeer, etc.. I often had at least one application of Noggenfogger on me at all times. It still is my favorite item in WoW. I made Evizaer come with me to Tanaris just to do that one quest.

The synthesis of social and competitive aspects cannot be decoupled. Your accomplishments mean nothing unless compared to others. Has a friend ever been really excited to tell you some feat he completed in a game you've never played? Sure you feel happy for his success, but you don't know how grand the accomplishment really is. We even juxtapose our solo trials. I can win Civilization 4 on the hardest difficulty (yea right!), but unless I've failed on Deity before, I have no sense of victory. It's all relative, just like any metric. I see players walking around in WoW with epic gear. It could be from some 5-man heroic or from Yogg+0 or whatever the kids are killing these days--I have no idea; the trophies are wasted on me.

If we use evolution to explain human behavior, the competitive backbone of society isn't that far fetched. Time and time again economists, anthropologists, and psychologists have tested the premise that humans should rationally choose the objectively better option when dealing with choices. But time and time again, humans show they would rather be better off relative to their neighbors. Keeping up with the Joneses. Or Ensidia.

Social players and achievement players are two sides of the same coin.

Friday, September 4, 2009

MMOs for Gamers: My Approach

Designers face a unique design hurdle in mass market MMOs: they have to make a game that isn’t relying on gamers for its chief source of subscribers and sales. I know many people who play MMOs but do not play games in general. They are drawn to the genre because it offers a social playground. The game mechanics are interchangeable and unimportant to them because they are just a side show to a game of social maneuvering, friend making, and accomplishing arbitrary goals cooperatively. If the game is popular enough to draw their friends in, the non-gamer will jump in and mass-market games are forced to make the landing comfortable. MMOs provide a microcosm of a meaningful life: you learn the game in your youth, you build trust and form relationships with others, you exploit those relationships and the dynamics of life in the world to do what you want to do and enjoy yourself.

It appears to me that most MMOs are produced with the goal of appealing to both the non-gamers and gamers equally (or appealing to primarily non-gamers in truth but appealing to gamers with marketing speak). I don’t think this is a productive approach. Non-gamers will not be interested in a game that forces them to play frequently and assumes they have some kind of skill and care about the outcomes of gameplay. They want a platform for social interaction. Gamers want the game to bind the players together into a de facto community—gamers do not want the community to draw the players. This naturally creates a situation that Gevlon likes to draw in stark relief: non-gamers who don’t really play the game intermingling with gamers who are primarily in the game to play it. To judge one group by the other’s standards, as Gevlon does to much controversy and dramatic effect, is foolish—it’s a variety of ethnocentrism akin in kind, but by no means in significance, to the ethnocentrism that mars many pieces of historical work regarding Asian and Middle Eastern cultures written by Western authors of the past thousand years. It’s easy to believe something is better just because it is your belief—it is not easy to come to grips with the complex reality of a multi-dimensional and multi-faceting picture of goals and motivations.

I approach MMO design as a gamer. I’ve played many games in nearly every genre. I don’t rely on the mainstream to supply games—I play and love games like Armageddon Empires, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (X and XI, primarily), Front Office Football, AI War, Dwarf Fortress, Europa Universalis 3, and ADOM. I seek to find the games that I will have fun playing, and play them until I no longer find them fun. I’m accustomed to learning difficult and opaque games; they often give me the greatest amount of concentrated fun. Blundering through difficult games for hours in order to learn even the simplest uses of their mechanics doesn’t faze me. In this, I’m a rare type of gamer and I’m indelibly a gamer.

I am the diametric opposite of a non-gamer, and understanding that will allow you to see where I come from with my design ideas and my exhortations towards a revolution in MMOs. Any MMO can rise and fall on the waves of social fancy among their players, but the ones that stay big seem to have good games locked within them. I want to design and play MMOs that are sound games around which strong communities can flourish. That is the most sensible and least trend-dependent (and therefore more stable) way of achieving success.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Currently Playing (September Edition for Evizaer)

Here’s a content-free post about what I’m playing these days. I tend to play games that are a bit off the beaten path and every good word you can put in for them is going to make a difference for the developers, so I think a shout out is appropriate. It’s also nice to see what kind of games an eternal critic like me actually satisfies himself by playing. I don’t think I’ll be posting reviews or critiques of these games individually, but I may break down individual mechanics that I find illuminating.

Here’s what I’m playing:

I've been playing League of Legends, though I may give up on it until it is released to the public due to there being not enough low ranked players for learning the game to be anything but a ridiculously frustrating and painful exercise.

I'm playing World of Warcraft a couple of hours a night with Mot. Using the Refer-A-Friend system makes the game just barely tolerable enough to keep playing. Got a Warrior up to 51 before getting bored. Switched to a priest who is now 32. I'm having fun. I would not play without 3x XP from RAF, though.

I'm playing AI War, an indie cooperative-only RTS that is ridiculously massive. Large unit counts in multi battle-field campaigns throughout a galaxy of 10-100 (maybe more?) planets. This game is worth a look because it experiments with asymmetric AI—the AI isn’t just a dumb attempt at simulating what a player will do, the developer of AI War has designed the AI only with fun play in mind, so the mechanics the AI follows are different from the player’s mechanics in some important areas such as unit creation, tech advancement, and unit movement between battlefields and throughout the galaxy.

I just got over a fit of Armageddon Empires. It's an awesome turn-based strategy game that uses card-game elements to spice things up. If the interface weren't awful, it'd be a very good game.

I'd like to get back into Europa Universalis 3, but I don't have the time to dedicate to relearning the game. It's a difficult game to wrap your head around. And once you wrap your head around it, it's a difficult game to play well.

I bought Hearts of Iron 3 upon release to support the developers, but I knew the game would be not worth playing for months. Paradox Interactive, the makers of HoI3, have a tendency to release really complex games that have gaping flaws, then patch them into being great games over the course of 1-3 years.

I will be playing Aion later this month with Mot. Hopefully its novelty will allow it to remain engaging for a month or two. I do not have high hopes, but I am looking forward to trying a game with a heavily eastern-influenced design. I tried Ragnarok Online (on a hacked server, which I guess means I didn’t get the full experience) and some other blah eastern-style MMOs and they yielded little fun.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

LoL Info NDA Lifted

Beta Testers,

We are loosening the NDA to allow discussion of all elements of League of Legends.

As of now, you are now allowed to talk or write about the game with no restrictions.

You are still not allowed to post pictures or videos.

With this announcement, we encourage you to start writing blogs, posting comments on articles, recording podcasts and discussing League of Legends on your favorite external forums.

We also encourage everyone to correct any misinformation you see in discussions going forward.

Thanks for playing, and see you online!

- Pendragon