Hyperbole In Game Theory Part 117

June 29, 2009

In today’s episode of “Hyperbole in Game Theory”, Gevlon the Goblin comes to a horrifying realization!

The success of the completely unfair, M&S [Gevlonese for “morons and idiots”, aka everyone not Gevlon] catering, always-nerfed WoW over Starcraft, EVE, Darkfall is the ultimate proof that most people are just too stupid for a free-market system.

Well, there you have it. But wait, the explanation? It’s better.

Commenters use to write “you must give welfare to the real world poor or they revolt”. I found it silly and used to handle it with “make sure the cops have enough ammo”. I meant it literally. My guess was that the RL M&S who are too skilless to do any jobs, are a little minority, like 10%. Let the cops handle them, they won’t be missed.

Not anymore.

The problem is not that the useless M&S would starve. They wouldn’t be missed.

The problem is that in the current level of education and the cultural value of learning, the useful/useless boundary is simply too high. You cannot discard 20-30% of the population and you cannot let other 40-50% live in low wages. They won’t accept it and they are just too many to handle by cops.

Yes, there’s so many casuals in World of Warcraft that we just can’t shoot them all.

And God knows, I’ve wanted to.

Tune in next week for “Hyperbole in Game Theory”, when Blizzard’s nerfing Death Knight tanking is held responsible for the collapse of Latvia’s currency.


The Unbearable Lightness Of Stranglethorn Vale

May 18, 2009

Richard Bartle explains in great detail exactly what goes through an MMO designer’s mind when playing one of the more painful zones in WoW. Except he rather likes it, see.

So, my view is a bit different. As I noted, I actually see Stranglethorn Vale (STV) as one of Blizzard’s less well designed zones. To wit:

  • It’s too large, and until very recently there was no easy way to move from one end of the zone to the other. While ideally, as Bartle noticed, there is a slow progression from one end of the zone to the other, realistically players will not play through the entire zone in one sitting. This is especially annoying for Alliance players – they have a small NPC hub, without a “innkeeper” resting area, in the northern end of the zone, while Horde players have a more central location, with an innkeeper, to work from. This is really the largest problem with the zone – it’s just too large. And because it’s too large, it keeps you there far too long. What may have given you a sense of place and wonder at level 30, to put it mildly, no longer does by level 45. (Another zone, Dustwallow Marsh, was recently revamped specifically to give players a place to escape to during that level range.)
  • The quest design relies far too much on “kill 10 of these. OK, kill 10 of these! OK, hey, kill 15 of these.” Yes, that’s inherently what WoW (or any Dikumud PVE) game play is. But those sorts of concentrated kill quests, while gravy to powergamers looking for the easiest way to leverage the mindless button pressing that destroys them of everything that makes them human, really highlight the artificiality of the enterprise. And that’s what most WoW quest design manages to hide very well. You’re not just killing 10 wolves, you’re saving a troll village from starvation or whatnot. Sure, it’s just a storytelling veneer, but it’s important veneer. It also helps break up the inherent tedium involved in “kill 10 of this, fetch 5 of that” questing. And because WoW is usually so good at this smoke-and-mirror hand waving style of quest-driven storytelling, when it breaks down, it’s notable. And STV is an excellent example of where this breaks down.
  • Hitting more on the specifics of faulty quest design as opposed to the content, STV is where players begin to be punished in earnest by poorly thought out world design. When you have too many players hunting the same thing in the same area, you either encourage cooperation or competition. However, WoW by its very nature as a solo-friendly MMO rabidly discourages cooperation (at least until it’s hit forcibly over your head when you switch to end-game raiding), so very few people actually think “Hmm – we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, we should group up and kill them together!”. Instead, they think “Hmm, we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, I BETTER TAG THEM FIRST!”. Other poorly thought out mechanics include the “Green Hills of Stranglethorn” mega-collection quest (which the author himself is on record as regretting as “the worst quest in WoW”) which usually serves as a focus of inventory-related frustration for the intended new player audience and as powergaming grist for those already familiar with the zone, and some quests with an insanely low drop rate for quest-related drops that, again, encourage frustration over fun.

So, that’s generally what I think of when I remember that zone – long, tedious, lots of panthers, and an abiding hatred for Hemet Nesingwary. A hatred, by the way, which Blizzard gave a knowing wink to in Northrend – after Nagarand, aka STV 2.0, reuses the kill-20-panthers quest design yet again to even more wretched excess – when you can actually start killing off Hemet’s buddies. Generally, if a well-regarded part of your content involves killing off a quest giver, that may be a sign people didn’t like those quests.

A lot of what Bartle writes on STV is interesting, especially as it relates to its quest design. He definitely comes at looking at STV from a different angle than I do. Specifically:

    Well no, because these quests are stepped: the levels appropriate for the tiger mastery steps are 31, 33, 35, 37; for the panther mastery steps they’re 31, 33, 38, 40; for the raptor mastery steps they’re 34, 36, 41, 43. The final boss is also 43, but elite (so "bring friends"). This interleaving allows for variety, and it despatches the players off to various different parts of STV where the target creatures lie, thereby causing happy interactions with other quests relating to areas they pass through. However, even though this is very well done, it’s basically just well-accomplished craftsmanship. No, what we also have here is some actual art.

    The stepped nature of these hunting quests mean that whatever level you first encounter the Nesingwary camp in STV, there’s going to be a quest of an appropriate level for you. It’s like a net, spread wide to catch players.

     

    Well, no. Thanks to how WoW quest chain dependencies work, you actually have to start at the beginning no matter what your level, and work your way through the chain. It would be awfully nice if the quest givers did actually recognize that, yes, thanks to being Level Awesome you can dispense with the Somewhat Mighty Junglecat slaying and move straight on to the Fiercely Mighty Junglecat part of the quest. (Which Warhammer Online also tried to implement, by the way.) At least, it would be if you were playing the game as designed. Players, who are playing the game to win much of the time, would then resent the loss of experience and faction and gold and everything else, and hammer away at the lower level quests despite their being level-inappropriate, because they don’t want to lose any rewards due them at all. (The fact that they will then kvetch about that content being tedious is entirely beside the point.)

Bartle’s primary point, to move away from nitpicking semantics, however, is that the entire Hemet Nesingwary saga is an artful storytelling device which funnels you through the wonder of the jungle, forcing you to ask if you were predator or prey, as you travel down a road which mirrors your character’s growth and confidence. And as designed, the core of STV – which can easily be a metaphor for WoW’s character development model itself – does indeed work that way. Proper game design (at least as one cynical wag put it) doesn’t present you with a complex challenge, but tricks you into believing you’ve conquered a complex challenge. And in WoW, that “complex challenge” is the investment of time. Invest enough time in STV – or WoW itself – and you will eventually win. That’s its inherent promise, and to a large degree the polish in which that promise has been delivered is why WoW is so incredibly popular, even years after its release.

And yet, even with that well-executed promise, there are problems along the way. Server queues. Lack of meaningful social gameplay. Class imbalance. Lack of meaningful PvP. Same old diku, different day. And STV mirrors that as well – even with all of WoW’s promise, and even with STV’s world design and immersive environment, there are times when it falls flat on its face.

And so we have Dustwallow Marsh. Which is everything STV isn’t – a hub-spoke model of world design, less immersive world crafting, more attention to detail and interesting quest mechanics. And with a game and community the size of WoW’s, this is really the solution to STV’s problems – simply create so many options that everyone can be happily grinding their way to virtu
al nirvana.


Helpful Lum Is Helpful: Design Blogs And You

April 23, 2009

i want to make game
it may be awesome or not
i want to make game

Matthew Weigel’s awesome whiteboard haiku/commentary on game development

Do YOU want to make game? Then you probably blog about it! Cuppycake tried to be controversial and failed on the topic, because everyone agreed with her. (Aww, it’s OK. Just belittle a PvP game, that usually works for me.) It’s already created a fiesta of trackbacks, and instead of saying yet another “yeah, what they said”, I’ll chip in with my own experience.

See, I’m still fairly new at the whole game design thing. Sure, I’ve been wanting to do it approximately since I was 10, but that’s beside the point. So I do a lot of reading on the subject so that I don’t completely suck at it. Most of which are… well, game design blogs.

Use a blog reader. This may seem an obvious point, but the best blogs you find in this field are not going to be updated often, because the people who write them do other things besides blog. You know, like work on games. You WANT to read the stuff from the guy that never updates, ever, because she usually has something good to say when he does.

Don’t get deluded by star power. Resume != competence. And more importantly skill != writing ability. As Raph Koster noted in his comment on the subject, just because one is a good game designer, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are a good writer. And some of the best design discussions I’ve found have been written by amateur designers. Critical thinking and analysis is required here. It’s required for coming up with healthy game designs, too, so you need the practice.

Get outside your comfort discipline. There are great discussions of game theory and development on blogs that theoretically have nothing to do with design. Given that a good designer is also, most likely, going to work hand in glove with art, marketing, engineering, community, and production, an appreciation of their challenges is vital. A bad designer will write – or worse, not bother to write – documentation that exists in its own bold and creative space outside of any possibility of implementation. Don’t be a bad designer. It makes the coders laugh at us during lunch.

Don’t pretend Twitter and Facebook are relevant to your job. Unless you’re making a Facebook game (and I hope you’re pushing it out quick, because everyone else is). They’re social networking tools. Your job may well involve coming up with a coherent social network design, but be honest, you’re not playing Mafia Wars or obsessively following @ashtonkutcher to learn about how people process connections. It’s a time sink, not a resource. Be aware of this. (This blog you are currently reading, also 99% of the time counts as a time sink. Just so you know.)

MMO-specific message boards are actually relevant to your job. But they’re still time sinks. Enjoy the contradiction, and don’t get tangled up in flamewars on the political forums, because someone WILL throw your job in your face at some point. If you’re smart, you’ll make a completely anonymous account and use that for interacting on forums. You’re not smart.

Things You Should Read, Please:

  • Damion Schubert’s Design Doc Presentation. No, really, if you read ONE thing on the Internet about design, learn to write frakkin design docs. It’s the one bitch I constantly hear from experienced developers about inexperienced designers. I could just direct link it but instead I’ll send you to his site and you can view trying to find it as a test (note that if you fail, he also is one of the aforementioned good bloggers who never update because they’re busy on wanting to make game.)
  • Raph Koster writes about everything but lately he’s been writing about all the emergent games that everyone with WoW-lock have avoided paying any attention to. You could pay attention to them. Or you could be a dinosaur and wait for your extinction-level event. Your choice, really.
  • You probably are cloning World of Warcraft. Just admit it. And if you are, the best design discussions on what you’re cloning are over on Elitist Jerks (which despite its name is not particularly jerky, though it can be fairly elitist). Tobold’s blog is also a good place for player-centric commentary.
  • Daniel Cook’s blog isn’t very MMO centric. Read it anyway. Thinking about the why behind style and presentation is why that iPhone in your pocket is so ineffably awesome. (If you have a Blackberry you are dead to me.)

This list is pretty short. Partially it’s because I’m not including the literally dozens of blogs by clueful amateur designers, live team veterans, and industry analysis. And partially it’s because, well, there’s just not that many blogs specificaly focused on the how and why of game design. Well, that are very good, anyway.

(See, Cuppycake, THAT’S how you do it! 🙂  )


Jeff Kaplan Does GDC, Explains How Not To Write Quests

March 27, 2009

Well, if you’re going to clone World of Warcraft, you could do worse than listen to the guys who cloned Everquest. Jeff Kaplan gave an opinionated talk that will probably have WoW players posting furiously for weeks.

“This is the worst quest in World of Warcraft,” he said. “I made it. It’s the Green Hills of Stranglethorn. Yeah, it teaches you to use the auction house. Or the cancellation page.”

“So I’m the asshole that wrote this quest. My philosophy was, I’m going to drop all these things around Stranglethorn, and it’s going to be a whole economy unto itself… It was horrible.”

“It was utterly stupid of me. The worst part… one of the things that taxes a player in a game like WOW is inventory management. Your base backpack that the game shipped with only has 16 slots in it. But basically at all times, players are making decisions. For a single quest to consume 19 spaces in your bags is just ridiculous.”

“So it’s a horrible quest, and I’m the only who made it, and somehow I am talking to you guys today.”

Most of Kaplan’s points boil down into the following:

  • People don’t like Lake Wintergrasp

You’ve played that shooter, that shooter that is fucking awesome… and then it’s got the one gimmick vehicle level, which you can tell they didn’t know what they were doing with vehicles, and it felt all floaty and things didn’t shoot right. The same mistake happened in World of Warcraft.

Lots of these vehicle quests, they’re more fun for the designer than they are for the player.

  • People don’t like delayed gratification

It’s a quest that starts at level 30, it spans 14 levels. And it ends with you having to kill Myzrael there, who’s a level 40 elite mob. So it’s basically like putting a brick wall in front of a player. Here you go, just bang your head against the wall for a while…

The reason that this is bad — it’s cool to have quest chains that span a lot of content, and feel kind of expansive and far-reaching. But the reason that this particular case is bad is because the player [loses trust] in the game.

  • People don’t like solving mysteries

We can unveil a mystery story, but at the end of the day, in the quest log it needs to say, ‘Go kill this dude, go get me this item.’ The mystery can’t be what to do [on the quest]. We wanted the action in WoW quests to be in the gameplay, not in figuring out what am I supposed to do.

  • People like choices. But they’re wrong.

…You show up to a quest hub, and your minimap is lit up like a Christmas tree with quest exclamation marks.

The weird thing is, if you ask our fans, they love this. This is to them a good quest hub… They go in and vacuum up the quests. But we’ve lost all control to guide them to a really fun experience.

  • People don’t like to read

I think it’s great to limit people in how much pure text they can force on the player. Because honestly… if you ever want a case study, just watch kids play it, and they’re just mashing the button. They don’t want to read anything.

Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.

World of Warcraft has 12 million more subscribers than you do.


Rights, Profit, Drama

March 23, 2009

The recent Blizzard add-on mess has brought up – in my mind anyway, as well as some others – some age-old questions about player rights in games through exposing a pretty core dichotomy in how people look at online games.

On the one side, you have the people who take Blizzard’s side, and if anything, think they don’t go far enough. World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s game, they added the ability to script the client, they can just easily take it away, and you people whine so much about it now they probably should. On the other side, you have people who see this as a software rights issue – the addons I write for World of Warcraft are mine, Blizzard has no right to tell me what I can and can’t write, and if I make some cash from my work it’s none of their business. Which, not surprisingly, segues into the rights of players versus the responsibilities of game developers – not exactly a new discussion.

My views on the subject, also unsurprisingly, have been shaded by almost a decade on the other side of the development fence, and a few decades of cynicism about basic human nature before that. Succinctly put, the governance of online games and worlds exist in a triangle of rights, profit, and drama.

Here, I can illustrate this triangle quite easily by using a snippet from this recent article.

Virtual world technology is intentionally designed to make humans act as though the virtual world is, at least in some respects, real. Thus, as a normative matter, when corporations choose to use technology intended to entice humans into acting as though they were safe in their own homes, or privately communicating with friends, the law ought to respect those expectations as it does in real life. I therefore argue that U.S. persons in virtual worlds possess a reasonable expectation of privacy, such that a search of their virtual homes and property should be subject to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

Your reaction to that paragraph depends on how you feel about rights vs. profit vs. drama.

Rights: Well, of course. He’s stating the obvious. Does your landlord in the real world, even though he owns your house and the land it’s on, have any right whatsoever to read your mail and pop in unexpectedly when you have a date? Why should virtual landlords have more rights than realspace landlords?

Profit: I can’t believe we’re even having this discussion. If I’m going to be threatened with lawsuits because of constitutional rights you have to my server, I’d have to be retarded to ever open my company up to such liability by making a server.  These are entertainment products, and we are being paid to create a safe and enjoyable environment for everyone. There is no such thing as virtual civil rights, only EULAs. And if you somehow get the courts to disagree, we’ll take our balls and go make console games.

Drama: I KNEW IT I KNEW IT I WAS RIGHT I KNEW IT the company needs to give me my account back now.

When it comes to MMOs, a dark and bitter part of me doesn’t believe any of you should have any rights, because, well, drama. The people who complain about “rights” almost always, without fail, do so because drama happened. They did something to run afoul of the game administrators – usually, 0ne of the many thousands of ways people have crafted to be a raging dickhead to one another online – and then they turn into cyber civil libertarians, decrying the omnipotence of the “game gods” (note: any time you use the phrase “game gods” without irony, I’m going to assume you’re Prokofy Neva) and demanding their fundamental civil right to be online in your game where they can continue to be a raging dickhead.

The best example of civil libertarianism trumping customer service is the case of Peter Ludlow, who when banned from the Sims Online, supposedly for advertising his website ingame, promptly used his status as a member in good standing of academia to appeal his banning to the New York Times. (He then moved on to writing a Second Life tabloid. I’m not kidding.) You’ll note that EA, who ran Sims Online at the time, didn’t have a lot to say in response. This may be because they felt embarassed over banning someone for maintaining a website that made them look bad (not that I’d know anything about that). Or it may be because there was an actual reason to ban him and they were constrained due to privacy issues from actually saying anything about it, even when it made the New Frickin York Times, thus having Ludlow’s account of his banning being the only one on the record.

That’s not to say that online gaming companies are immune from banning people for squirrelly reasons (and even for supposedly open-and-shut cases of administrative abuse, there’s usually another side of the story). But gaming companies in general are in business to make a profit. This drives an obvious factor and one that isn’t as obvious at first glance to outside observers. The obvious factor is that banning players hurts a company’s profits because, well, one less customer. However, the collorary, which is somewhat unique to online games, is that there are players who by their presence drive off more income than they themselves bring in. Thus, the Profit motive trumps Rights and Drama – ban early and often, the “oderint dum metuant” school of customer service.

It’s not all a dystopic wasteland of corporate oppression, though. Game developers have been discussing the ethical implications of what rights players should have for quite a while now. Raph Koster’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Avatar” makes a pretty clear and reasoned argument for enabling as many rights for players as possible while still allowing developers to maintain their own games. And since most developers are also MMO users themselves, they’ve had enough encounters with the ‘oderint dum metuant’ game mastering school to know that it can be toxic to the long term health of the game by itself.

Which is good, because there’s not a lot of willingness to compromise between the proponents of Rights, Profit and Drama. The Rights advocates are usually dismissive of the fears Profit has, while being sniggeringly dismissive or blithly unaware (depending on their actual experience with virtual worlds) of the corrosive effects of Drama. Profit fears Rights – and more importantly, the possible governmental/legal intervention based on it – while its day to day frontline struggle with Drama fills its veterans with a distaste for the everyman veterans of police departments would envy. And Drama? Drama only cares about Drama, girlfriend.

Yet all three of these need to be balanced – and in fact, I’d even argue that without Drama you don’t have the community development necessary for an MMO to grow. And if nothing else, it might be an interesting thought experiment to look at contentious issues (such as the Blizzard addon foo-frah) through prisms of the triangle other than ones you might be used to.


Fixing MMOs Is Hard

February 3, 2009

Tom Chick: MMOs are broken! Fix!
The Narrator: No, you mean WoW is broken.

And now we have:

Trembling Hand: Oh come on, they’re broken, fix plz.

So I thought I’d share my jaded, broken-on-the-wheel-of-pain response to the above. A caveat: if someone released a game with all 10 of those points implemented, I’m sure it would be awesome. However — the devil, as always, is in the details.

Thus, I’ll hit these out of order, because some of them are such obvious truths it’s hard to disagree with (even for me, and I’m a professional curmudgeon.)

10) Launch when it’s finished

Yes, that’d be swell. When is finished? When the game is fun? That’d be great. When you run out of money and are going to lay everyone off unless you shove it out the door prematurely? True more times than I care to remember, including some eventual market successes.

But yes, in an ideal world we’d be free of budgetary pressures and, through beneficent overlords careless with cash, or even more unlikely, proper and experienced project management, a game would be developed well, QA’d throughly, beta’d for both fun gameplay and crippling bugs, and release on time and on budget.

Heh. Hah. muahahHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAH. There, I’m done now.

8 ) Make subscriptions cheaper

Hard to get cheaper than “free”, which is rapidly becoming the price point for a lot of new games. But yes, asking for a credit card is a pretty crucial hurdle that is difficult for a lot of games to surmount. So, sure, cheaper is good. Hopefully you can afford to keep that team running and throwing cash at them so they don’t have to release things early!

7) Quality of life
4) Don’t make me grind

Totally agreed here, on both of these. In fact, I’m tempted to combine them and call this the Blizzard Rule. Namely: if your players are playing your game and suddenly think “you know, I could be having more fun playing World of Warcraft right now”? It’s time to break out the “maintenance mode” budget spreadsheets.

3) Make combat smarter

It’d be great if we could. Unfortunately, the Internet intervenes.

Both in terms of lag time (the more complex the interaction between client and server during a time-critical action like, say, combat, the more lag breaks the immersion, or more accurately the outright lie that you’re actually engaging with a game in realtime as opposed to a half-second or so delay) and in terms of, well, people on the Internet aren’t that enamored with complex things. Take Dungeons and Dragons Online – which has precisely the type of combat the original poster proposed. DDO is not, by any stretch, a market success. Now, that’s probably not due to the complex combat system – but by that same token, it didn’t exactly close the deal for selling the game either.

Players, in the aggregate, tend to enjoy simplicity. Sorry. No, really, I’m sorry, I’m the guy who likes insanely overcomplex rules systems. Unfortunately you and I are outliers.

1) Make the worlds more engaging

Also make them fun. And finished. Also, profitable. Anything else? Oh yeah, blue. They should be blue. Blue is cool.

OK, enough sarcasm on that one. Yes, plenty of games fall down in inducing a sense of wonder or even a sense of place that’s critical for the success of a virtual world, probably through a tunnel vision imposed on deathmarching your way through an insane production schedule so you can “release it when it’s finished” before the entire company is laid off. And a lot of that is due to the unoriginal design of many games tasked with “cloning WoW”. It’s really hard to make a coherent world when you’re working off a xerox machine of game mechanics and interfaces.

(By the way, there is not a single MMO designer on the planet who wakes up in the morning with “I’d love to clone WoW” as his or her personal dream. There are many executives, however, who wake up EVERY morning with that dream. Protip: Executives outrank designers.)

By the way, if you’re keeping score, I start tossing bombs in earnest right about…. now.

2) Ditch classes and levels

If I had a quarter for every armchair designer (or actual designer for that matter) I’ve listened to that began their “How I Would Save The MMO Industry Singlehandedly” speech with “ditch classes and levels”, I could fund World of Progressquest singlehandedly. It’s the quickest way to indie cred: instead of saying you really like Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, you say you really wish someone would make a game just like Ultima Online (which effectively had classes and eventually patched them in explicitly) or Asheron’s Call 1 (which had levels as well as implicit classes) or Game No One Has Ever Heard Of But Makes A Ton Of Money And Has No Classes (but does have levels and an insane soul destroying grind) or My Favorite MUD No One Ever Heard Of But It Totally Ruled. Saying “I wish someone would ditch those damn levels and classes” isn’t proposing a game design. It’s proposing the absence of one.

Unless you have a pretty compelling alternative for explaining how people can develop their character without being intimately familiar with the game’s rules (which, mind you, are almost never well documented in any MMO, it’s like some sort of conspiracy industry-wide to refuse to hire a decent web team), you’re simply taking all the design work you’d already have to do in creating skills and abilities, and instead of building them into coherent class sets yourself are saying “screw it – let the players do it. They know better anyway. Plus there’s none of that annoying game balance to worry about! Everybody can be everything, amirite?” (Oh wait, you have this really complex series of checks and balances to make sure you can’t screw up your character or become God of the Tankmages that will mean the game will take 2 years to learn instead of 1 year. Right.)

Ditching levels and classes won’t magically eliminate The Grind: Ultima Online was a horribly, horribly grind-tastic game (hello, GM Blacksmith TWICE, cry for me) and World of Warcraft is pretty grind-free despite being chock full of both classes AND levels.  It’s simply another rules system, and by its nature an inherently more complicated one, both to design and more importantly, to play. That doesn’t mean it’s BAD – there’s plenty of successful MUDs that do very well with mature skills-based systems. But just tossing that out as “well, hell, why hasn’t anyone ever thought of this besides ME” ignores, among other things, the fact that this gets proposed and wildly argued over and finally shouted down violently by the experienced and probably drunk senior developer in every MMO designed to date.

Of course, just rehashing D&D over and over again is pretty insane, too.

5) Make mobs smarter

It would be ridiculously easy to make mobs smarter. “Hey, I need to always kill the guy healing people. No, really. Screw you, taunt skill. I’M KILLING THIS GUY. Oh, I’m getting some friends to help. In fact we’re going to loop around from behind to take them by surprise. AND WE’RE NOT STOPPING TILL WE WIN.” It would be the equivalent of That Dungeon Master Guy you all hate who takes great, sadistic, and Aspergian glee in making sure “his” players always die horribly.

This is not an experience people will pay for. Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.

Also, I have seen metrics prove conclusively, time and time and time and time again, that in a game that *does* have monsters with decent AI and that use strategies that require some thought to defeat, that players will avoid them in droves and seek out the ones with the most brain damaged AI possible.

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

6) Encourage grouping

Yeah, let’s not go there.

9) Listen to, and engage with, players

The players are often WRONG.

What’s more, they will lie to you.

DIRECTLY.

TO YOUR FACE.

No, really, their class is horribly underpowered, any fool would know that if they only played the game and that bug you’re talking about is really a feature and anyway you shouldn’t remove it because our entire side is underpopulated so it’s only fair.

The players are not the ones at financial risk if your game fails. They simply move on after consuming all you have to offer.

Of course the players are also often right. There’s a whole discipline of development which revolves around figuring out which is which. At least until they figure out they’re the least paid people at the company and move on to junior worldbuilder so they finally get some respect in the break room.

But engaging with players entails the willingness to do some very fundamental things which, to date, have been unpopular with both developers and players.

* Telling players they are wrong.

* Telling dev teams they are wrong.

* Telling players and dev teams that YOU have been wrong.

* Being honest with both players and dev teams.

* Not taking sides with one against the other.

* Not playing favorites with certain players or groups of players.

* Not playing favorites with certain devs or groups of devs.

* Not building up your own personal reputation at the cost of your teams or your community.

* Having skin thick enough to deflect radioactive waste.

* Having the ability to process thousands of often contradictory voices, cleanly, quickly and professionally, without hearing them in your head as an insane cacophany driving you to murder small children.

If you’re not willing to do that – all of that – then the point you ignored will be the point that will hoist you on your petard and do more damage to your community than if you had never engaged with them in the first place. And that is why most dev teams of late just take the path of least resistance and not bother. Because it’s SAFER.

But yeah, you should totally engage with your players, because, hey, they are kind of the reason you’re there. Just be aware you’ll screw it up and cause more harm than good. Also be aware you’re not the first.

So… yeah. Hopefully this gives some idea of the long and brutal path between good intentions and attempted implementation.

It’s HARD, yo.


Answering Tom Chick: Five Easy Pieces And One Snide One

January 28, 2009

Tom Chick is one of the (if not the) most influential video game writers out there. He also doesn’t like MMOs very much. This is a problem!

He lays out five reasons why not here. You should go read. When you come back, I have some helpful suggestions!

Problem one: Subscription fees

Well, um, not every MMO charges subscription fees. Guild Wars lets you play as much as you want once you buy the box. MMOs for teens like Maple Story and Runequest pioneered the model of “playing for free until you get addicted, then pay a little more”. Games like Puzzle Pirates let you pitch in a dollar or whatever when you need to. This isn’t an unsolved problem. What is an unsolved problem is that perception that subscription fees imply a level of quality in craftmanship, and “free products” are cut-rate. This is driven largely because at the moment, that’s how the market shakes out. After all, World of Warcraft charges a subscription fee, therefore, statistically speaking, all MMOs do! Right?

Problem two: Why do I have to install Omen again?

For those of you not being drug by your nose through World of Warcraft raiding, Omen is the name of a third party threat meter used to ensure your aggro management is precisely where it should be. Aggro is a key part of the Holy Trinity that to date every DikuMUD (muds descending from Diku code bases, as Raph Koster’s magisterial analysis describes), and the core combat mechanic hasn’t really changed that much in the intervening decades. You takes the beats, you heals the beats, you mitigate the beats, you spread the beats around. It’s all about the beats. Unless, you know, you fight other players, since other players are usually immune to taunting unless it takes place on message boards. Even in DikuCombat, PvP breaks the whole aggro paradigm. And there *are* other combat systems that have been introduced. They’re rare, and usually get roundly trounced in the marketplace because people enjoy the safe, secure embrace of take/heal/deal beats. Ultima Online, for example, is entirely apart from the whole DikuMUD aggro mechanic – it has aggro, but it’s dependent on lots of bizarre things such who hit what when and whether you had a bard and the phase of the moon and whatever. But, if you play World of Warcraft, that’s what you’re going to learn, since, statistically speaking, all MMOs are actually World of Warcraft.

Problem three: Why are there so many goddamn buttons on my screen?

Because you’re playing a Warlock? Because you’re raiding? The core World of Warcraft UI is actually pretty simple. It’s player-crafted addons that hoist it aloft into a F-16 HUD. But the real core problem is the button-mashing that, again, DikuCombat is dependent on. It’s an artifact of MMOs being client-server systems at their core; more interactive combat such as Oblivion’s sword slashing imposes a huge tax on latency and percieved responsiveness. There have been hacks (such as Age of Conan’s “autoattacking into space” directional attacks) but, in the main, World of Warcraft uses the same tried and true DikuCombat which means you’re going to be pressing the 1, 2 and 3 keys on your Rogue over and over. And statistically speaking, all World of Warcraft players are in fact Rogues (soon to be Death Knights).

Problem four: Why is there a line to kill Sauron?

World of Warcraft is, by its very nature, intentionally a static amusement park. You get on the ride, you experience thrills, chills, the occasional spill, and get to the end, at which point you get to do it all over, but for reputation points.  This is because if someone came before you and saved Bloodmyst Isle from the Sun Elf threat, you’d have a pretty damned boring time getting your space goat to level 20, wouldn’t you? There have been many attempts to address this problem – having player-generated content (such as UO’s Seers), having player-vs-player content (such as Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer’s Realm vs Realm fighting), or having procedurally generated content (such as Anarchy Online’s early stab at instancing and World of Warcraft’s current iteration of ‘phasing’). But… hey, I bet you know how this will conclude, and I won’t spoil it for the next 50 people doing this quest line. (Hint: ‘statistically speaking…’)

Problem five: I can’t go raiding with Bob with my level 6 paladin

That’s because, for whatever reason, World of Warcraft never implemented sidekicking or mentoring – the ability to temporarily boost yourself or lower your friend’s levels so that they can match, which is a key feature of pretty much every MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, statistically speaking, every MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft doesn’t exist, so that’s probably why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

Tom Chick’s core problem: MMO = World of Warcraft. This isn’t really a fair cop, as I have it on good authority that he’s fond of LOTRO, too. But still. Every screenshot in his story is from World of Warcraft. Every problem in his story is from World of Warcraft. Every time he says MMO, he really means World of Warcraft.

And you know, when one of the most influential game writers in the industry makes this mistake, and essentially writes a piece on “Why is World of Warcraft Like World of Warcraft?”, I think we have a problem bigger then aggro management.

Statistically speaking.