Category Archives: Philosophy

Metagaming RPGs

It is becoming increasingly apparent that I am ruining RPGs for myself.

In the past two weeks or so, I have been playing Shadowrun Returns and, most recently, Dragon Age 2. In Shadowrun Returns, you can choose one of the six preset classes to play, or mix and match your own. Now, in some games of this type, I am more than fine with choosing something that simply sounds cool to play. For example, in Mass Effect the combo of a teleporting Shepard with a shotgun focus sounded fun. In WoW, I picked paladin because paladins.

With Shadowrun Returns though, none of the classes particularly jumped out at me. I was inclined to pick Decker (aka Matrix hacker) because that is sort of the whole schtick of the game, but it sounded rather boring to play in the case that there wasn’t a Matrix portal to hack into. And that is sort of where everything fell into place. The game clearly would not make hacking required, else they would force your character to be a Decker. And since the rest of your party are basically generic NPCs with no dialog that you pick from a vendor, you can safely cross out any class that is unlikely to get access to the best stuff. So… Mage it is.

And that worked. Perhaps too well. It reminded me a lot of my time with Fallout Tactics – or really any game where you can construct your own party – in that you can relegate certain party members to be experts in a niche specialty that you would never force your main character to do. There is no sense being a Rigger or Shaman, for example, because all that means is that your character’s purpose is to buff the nameless NPCs you take with you. This caused problem when I tried playing the subsequent Dragonfall “expansion” though, as I didn’t feel like playing a Mage again, but every other option felt bad. So I didn’t play it.

I am finding my metagaming even applies to more traditional RPGs though. In Dragon Age 2, your class choice is limited to warrior, mage, or rogue. Being a Bioware title, much of the draw of the game is going to be your interaction with your fellow party members, whom have classes of their own. Not all party members are created equally however, especially in terms of how interesting their dialog is, so you sort of have to tailor your class choice around what the more interesting party members bring to the table. For example, given how the existence of rogues at all signify there will be traps and locked chests, choosing to play as a rogue yourself allows you to replace the two rogue party member options in the event that neither are all that compelling to you. This logic does not apply to mages though, as  A) every class has an AoE spell, and B) healing spells can largely be replaced via potion use. In other words, precisely because there is no replacement for Lockpicking, playing a rogue makes for the optimal choice.

Unless, of course, you end up liking both rogue characters. In which case you are sort of screwed.

To be honest, I am not sure what it would take to defeat this circuitous thinking, beyond blunt force trauma. I suppose in both cases, there is an element of specialty that, if removed, would allow me to make the decision of which party members to bring based on how I liked them. Indeed, that was largely my experience in the Mass Effect trilogy – the special abilities weren’t all that special, and so pick who you like. Or I suppose I could simply forgo whatever goodies might be locked into the various in-game chests and simply lean upon the logic that none of the traps I encounter will one-shot my characters (because otherwise the designers would have forced you to bring a rogue). Hmm.

I don’t remember doing this throughout the Baldur’s Gate series. In fact, I was a monk throughout those games, which was about as close to useless as you can get. But since I loved having the rogue (Imoen), warrior (Minsc), and cleric (Jaheira) in my party all the time anyway, I didn’t feel deficient. Now that I think about it, weren’t those basically the only Good companions you could have anyway?

In any case, I am finding the trend of my agonizing on the character creation screen continuing for the foreseeable future.

Crushing Success

The final tally for Microsoft’s purchase of Minecraft is $2.5 billion. Markus Persson’s (aka Notch) personal take is reported to be $1.8 billion.

What is almost more interesting though is his thought process behind selling at all:

[...] I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.

As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.

It is almost funny, in a way. Can you separate the making of games from the business of making games? One can imagine some hobbyist painter who inadvertently crafts a masterpiece… that simply stays in the attic for decades. Or a writer who simply creates a book for themselves. The process is what they desired, not the outcome.

But games? Like information, games yearn to be free. A game without players is incomplete. So while I can understand the sentiment behind Notch’s desire, it seems somewhat futile. Being a game designer does not make one a good entrepreneur, true, but once released a game takes on a life of its own.

I will admit that my first reaction was to be a little petulant over Notch’s payout, because $1.8 billion. But looking at Minecraft itself and how it got there… who can really complain? This isn’t a game that preys on the weaknesses of the human psyche with microtransactions and cash shops (in the base game). This isn’t a game built around its business model. This is Old School purity in which a game relied on its own merits to sell more units. Sure, there is merch and movie deals these days but the core of the game remains the same.

So… good on you, Notch. This sale puts you around #1013 on Forbes’ billionaire list. Or to put it another way, Minecraft single-handedly made you equivalent to 2-3 JK Rowlings. Or about a Gabe Newell and a half.

Crazy world.

Parity as Entitlement

I wrote a post about Entitlement and the problems surrounding its (ab)use in gaming discussions back in 2012. Nothing has changed since then – I still consider anyone who uses it in a semi-serious way to essentially be Godwin’ing their own argument. What I did not expect to see two years later is “entitlement” to be even further warped as a pejorative to paint even those that desire parity in their games. Or presumably, by extension, anyone who has any desires whatsoever.

From Tobold’s blog:

Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.

The context of this quote comes from a larger discussion on the escalating price of “Founder’s Packs,” e.g. the extremely clever corporate jujitsu that resulted in people paying $150 for the “privilege” of alpha-testing even F2P games. Tobold’s larger points are that A) “too pricey” is subjective, and B) game companies are better off selling digital goods in their Collector’s Editions (as opposed to expensive physical goods) if it were not for the fact that “entitled” gamers don’t like that.

“Entitlement” clearly being a trigger word for me, I asked: “Is an expectation of parity now considered entitlement?” Tobold replied:

I have never met ANYBODY who expected or even wanted parity in a game. What people want is a system that is skewed towards their strong points. Thus the person who has more available time than money wants a game where you are King of the Hill if you spend the most time in the game. While the person who has more money than time would prefer if he could achieve things by buying them. Neither of the two wants parity.

The reason why expecting game companies to reward time more than money is entitlement thinking is because obviously the game company would much prefer your money over your time.

(That almost sounds like game companies feel entitled to my money, but nevermind.)

Now, it seems to me that he is making the accusation that people only like what games they are good at. Which… is a bad thing, I guess? There really cannot be any other possible explanation for your friends getting mad at you bringing real-world dollars into a game of Axis & Allies (or Chess, etc etc) other than taking away their advantage of more skillful play, right? Those entitled jerks… it’s all the same!

I enjoy parity in games. In fact, I expect it. Arguably the hallmark of any “game” is consistent rules that apply to every player equally (assuming the game isn’t based around asymmetry). If someone beats you in a fair game by virtue of better skill or strategy, who could legitimately complain? Even if they won by virtue of simply having spent more time playing the game, how could you object? Tobold and others may point out that some people have more time than money, but I do not know anyone who has 25 hours in their day. In contrast, the dollar amount anyone could have on hand is effectively unbounded. You could have $10, you could have $1,000,000.

Perhaps this disagreement comes from differing definitions of parity. Tobold in later comments suggests no MMORPG features parity because different people have different amounts of time to spend playing the game. This is not a dilemma to me – as I mentioned previously, the both of us have the same 24 hours in a day in which to allocate our time. I have zero issue with you receiving greater rewards (etc) for having spent more time playing the game than I. In fact, it sort of boggles my mind that this is even a point of contention. Is that not how any activity should inherently work? “You spent more time reading a book and got farther into than I did… unfair!”

I might be able to see where people could get angry about someone meeting or exceeding your own skillful play by simply repeating a low-skill activity for days and days. But even then, the results of your skill is self-evident: you achieved the result more quickly with less (wasted) time.

Bringing real-world money into a game is NOT analogous to either skill nor time. The amount of money any of us have is the result of an entirely different “game,” which operates on entirely different “rules.” It is like me getting an extra Queen in a game of Chess simply because I won a game of Checkers last year. Did that giant pile of real-world money give you the freedom to spend more time playing the game than me? That is both okay and irrelevant. The uber-rich guy, the 12-year old on summer break, the dropout college student, or the oil rig worker on his two weeks off all value the time spending playing the game equally for as long as they do.

Desiring parity in the games you play is not entitlement. Desiring that fewer companies tether their business model to the rules of the games they make is not entitlement. Desiring to play games you are good at is not entitlement. Desire is not entitlement. When you use the word “entitlement” as a pejorative, all you are doing is asserting that someone has unreasonable expectations about something, without actually bothering to offer an argument or explanation as to why it is unreasonable.

 

Going in Blind

Now that enough time has past since GenCon, allow me to admit to a little secret: I don’t actually like card/board games that much. Crazy, right?

My issue with these games have nothing to do with their mechanics or pieces, so perhaps it’s a little misleading to say that I don’t like them. What I actually don’t enjoy is learning a new game in a competitive environment. I have no problem with the inherent randomness of rolling dice or drawing cards, but having to make blind decisions based on rules I’ve been introduced to moments ago? It always feels horrible to me.

One of the evenings after GenCon, the group retired to a hotel lobby to play Ladies & Gentlemen. The game itself was utterly fascinating in the way it effectively kept 9 people engaged 100% of the time without any awkward waiting for everyone else to take their turn. You pretty much have to have a minimum of 7 players for it to be fun (three teams + the Mistress), but it’s definitely a game I would recommend.

Unfortunately, I lost by two points. Not even “my partner and I lost”: me specifically. Because during one of the early turns I bought a purse (I was a Lady, of course) that was worth two points… but due to a rules misinterpretation on my part, it could not be counted as part of my “outfit score” at the end. And nearly three weeks later I am still stewing about it. Not because I lost, but because I lost for a really dumb reason.

Same deal back when I was learning to play Dominion with friends. I understood the rules for the most part, but it wasn’t until Game 3 or so that I began to understand the cadence, the rhythm behind the game. Which cards were better than others, the tension between buying more cards and diluting your own deck, the power of trashing certain cards, and so on. I went from the guy blindly spamming the A button in Super Smash Brothers to Sheik, nightmare princess. Until I get halfway down the mastery route though, I have close to zero fun playing these games, friends notwithstanding.

“Just go with it.” NO U. I’d rather flip a coin than make a blind decision, because at least with the coin we can all acknowledge that there was no actual choice involved. I will lose Risk, Texas Hold’em, and a dozen other card/board games graciously all night because I clearly made meaningful choices (or risk assessments) that did not pan out. A blind choice has no meaning to me, and a choice is blind until I fully understand the choice’s place in the full context of the game. Which, as you may imagine, is hard to do when you are playing it for the first time and have no reason to ever own it yourself.

#GamerGate

If you are confused as to what this #GamerGate thing is… you are not alone. Because it really isn’t one thing any more, but a series of things that have all sort of been mixed together. For a summary of ongoing events, I recommend this Forbes article. In the meantime, I wanted to touch on the three main elements in reverse order.

Gaming Journalism

I pretty much agree with the recent Slate article titled “Gaming Journalism is Over.”

The attacks on the press have ranged from well-reasoned to offensive to paranoid, but the gaming journalists unwisely decided to respond to the growing, nebulous anger by declaring that “gamers” were dead. Such articles appeared concurrently in Gamasutra (“ ‘Gamers’ are over” and “A guide to ending ‘gamers’ ”), Destructoid (“There are gamers at the gate, but they may already be dead”), Kotaku (“We might be witnessing the ‘death of an identity’ ”) and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (“Gamers are over”), as well as Ars Technica (“The death of the ‘gamers’ ”), Vice (“Killing the gamer identity”) and BuzzFeed (“Gaming is leaving ‘gamers’ behind”). These articles share some traits in common besides their theses: They are unconvincing, lacking in hard evidence, and big on wishful thinking. A good number of them link to an obscure blog post by academic Dan Golding, “The End of Gamers,” which argues, again without evidence, that “the gamer identity has been broken” and that the current unrest “is an attempt to retain hegemony.” Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson linked to a similarly obtuse piece of academic argot (“ ‘Gamer’ is selfish … conservative … tribalistic”), which in Grayson’s words “breaks down the difference between ‘gamer’ as a manufactured identity versus loving games on multiple levels.” I’ve written essays comparing games to the work of artist Kurt Schwitters and poet Kenneth Rexroth, and even I can’t muster this level of vacuous self-importance on the subject.

Returning to the real world, the biggest problem with all these claims is that they are demonstrably untrue. A quick glance at financials shows that “gamers” are not going anywhere. If “gamers” really are dying, no one told the marketing departments for these publications, which continue to trumpet their “gamer” demographic to advertisers. What is going on instead is projection. As long as these journalists held a monopoly on gaming coverage, they could maintain a dismal relationship with their audience in spite of the fact that “most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR,” in the words of disaffected game columnist Robert Florence, who himself wrote about corruption in gaming journalism before quitting Eurogamer. But all that’s changing with the rise of long-form amateur gaming journalism and game commentating on YouTube and Twitch.tv, the latter of which was just bought by Amazon for $1 billion as the gaming press was declaring the end of gamers.

I am not entirely sure whether there is anything to add to that.

Well, I guess I will say that this “reckoning” (assuming anything at all actually changes) was a long time in coming. After all, how long have we existed with a review rubric in which numbers 1-6 did not exist on the 10-point scale? Professional gaming journalism simply doesn’t occur without the “charity” of the game developers’ review copies, or access for interviews, or any number of similar perks that understandably evaporate into the ether the moment an honest reviewer costs the company tens of thousands of sales. I was given a free Press™ pass for Darkfall: Unholy Alliance, but do I anticipate another such email from Aventurine? No, I do not. Unless perhaps I’m such small fries that their PR person doesn’t bother purging the rolls. (Assuming they still have a job.)

But even these small perks are becoming increasingly irrelevant in an age of paid Alphas and Steam Early Releases. With the notable exception of Hearthstone, I pretty much have had the same access to the games I have written about as anyone who reads the posts. Obviously, “real” game journalists get all-expenses paid trips to conventions and hands-on impressions with AAA games that might be coming out, but the margin between gatekeeper and gamer is narrowing. You don’t need to trust an established game journalist as to whether the latest release is worth $60 anymore, assuming you could trust them in the first place – just play the alpha/beta/early release yourself.

Indeed, at this point the most valuable person in gaming is whomever is out there telling you that a given game exists at all.

Who Are Gamers?

If I were being a purist, I would argue that Bhagpuss’ inadvertent definition is best:

And that’s probably at the root of why I don’t identify as a Gamer. It’s not an age thing. It’s a prestige thing. After university, where having the high score on Galaxians was something to be envied, I rarely encountered any social situation where identifying as a Gamer wouldn’t have been socially damaging.

In other words, you are a Gamer if you say you are a Gamer, accepting all the consequences of the admission.

I will admit a certain level of envy for the gamers just now entering high school, as they will likely not experience near the abuse that my generation (and older) endured when gaming was the reserved domain of nerds and outcasts. No doubt it was the same for comic book readers and others. There is indeed a sense of belonging that occurs amongst a persecuted group, and yes, identity. However, any sense of diminishment by widespread gaming acceptance is purely psychological. And, frankly, backwards.

Your identity as a Gamer should be tied to your unashamed passion for games. Full stop. Anything extra is a separate, superfluous identity you tacked on after the fact. “I liked this thing when it was hard to do so.” Great… so you are a Gamer and a Pariah. Do you want a cookie?

Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, etc

Nope.

Last Word

There really is no conclusion to this post, other than a rather mild surprise as to how much has melted down in the past three weeks or so. Seven gaming publications basically simultaneously asserting their readers no longer exist (or are horrible)? Who the shit has the time to browse internet articles about games but Gamers? Hell, I didn’t even play a game today due to reading gaming forums and writing this post.

Nevertheless, gaming journalism is one area in which I believe a total breakdown in “the establishment” will have a good outcome in the long-run. I mean, right now we have highly politicized real-world news monopolies (Fox vs CNN vs MSNBC) that only serve to insulate and divide people from alternate viewpoints. That’s bad. But the same thing really can’t exist in the gaming world because we ultimately play the games. If the game is shit, it’s shit, no matter who told you it was roses. And now you have 10,000 alternative voices that will admittedly likely coalesce into a few power-brokers, but again, reality will be the final arbiter.

I Miss Ghostcrawler

There, I said it.

Luckily for all of us, apparently the people of the LoL forums occasionally goad him into talking about WoW design. Here are some of the bits I found most interesting:

Was there a specific wow example that you think changed the balance too much? Whether you meant to shift the game that way or not, it seems like the playerbase thinks this has happened.

If I had to point to one controversial change, I’d say that in vanilla and BC to a lesser extent, there were many specs that weren’t really viable for PvE or PvP. We felt like they needed to be viable in order to justify being in the game, and we were reasonably successful in getting all of them much more competitive. I’ll be honest that there were times when there was still one dominant PvP spec, one dominant PvE spec and one more-or-less dead spec per class, but we did get a lot closer than ever before, especially in the most recent expansion. (And that was the team that accomplished that — I take very little credit.)

So why was this direction controversial? One, it was just flat out harder to balance since there were more variables. It led to all sorts of religious debates such as whether pure classes “deserved” to do more damage than hybrids. In order to guarantee that a particular class or spec wasn’t mandatory for raiding or Arenas, we had to share utility among more classes. (One example is shaman were no longer the only ones to bring Bloodlust.) This did homogenize classes, and some players were understandably not excited about that direction. I’m not sure of a better approach though. Maybe WoW should just have had 10 classes and not the 30 that different specs brought. Maybe some specs should have just stayed dead. I still think about this a lot.

As someone who mained a Paladin throughout TBC, I am a little biased against the whole “leave dead specs in” design. I was not a particular fan of Paladin healing, which left… precisely zero viable PvE/PvP specs for me for most of that expansion. Hell, Illidian as a raid boss was entirely designed around having a Warrior tank. And don’t get me started on how Retribution was only viable as a DPS option on Horde side (Seal of Blood was Blood Elf specific). Paladins ended up being 5-man tanking kings by the end of TBC, but I still remember the growing pains into of Ulduar in which General Vezax basically meant I had to level up a Death Knight alt just to main-tank it.

Still, I almost wonder how a “just 10 classes” design would work. Perhaps like Guild Wars 2? Or would there simply be tanking classes and healing classes?

Do you ever regret opening the game up to be more casual? Instead of taking the kind of direction you are with league?

Different approaches work for different products, and I don’t want to second guess the WoW team. Let’s just say that after working on Age of Empires and World of Warcraft for a total of 16 years, it’s really refreshing to work on a game where I don’t have to worry whether someone’s grandmother can pick it up or not.

Would like to see GC’s grandmother (or mother or father or brother etc) kill Heroic 25m Siegecrafter Blackfuse!

Blackfuse is not the standard by which most of the game is designed. It’s memorable in fact because it’s so much harder than 99% of what you do in the game. Very few players even try (though it is a great fight). You don’t wipe 100 times leveling up. Few players quit running dungeons because they’re too hard. In much of the game, death is unlikely and not much of an obstacle when it does happen. That’s just the way the game was designed and the way nearly all players experience it. I’m not even commenting on whether I agree with that philosophy or not, but it was the philosophy.

Regardless of whether anyone’s grandmother can beat Blackfuse or attain Challenger tier is really besides the point. The points (and these are facts, because I was on the staff of both dev teams) are:

1) WoW spends a lot of effort to make sure almost any player can pick up the game, learn the ropes, level to 90 and even raid if that’s their interest. LoL spends almost no effort making sure almost any player can pick up the game. It does expend some effort to make sure that players who self-identify as gamers can pick up the game.

2) As a result of these efforts and different definitions of potential audience, WoW has a much broader audience than LoL. That’s fine. Different strategies work for different games.

My point was that I spent a lot of development time on both Age of Empires and WoW trying to make the games approachable to a wide audience without compromising the game design. I don’t have to do that anymore, which is s nice change of pace.

Well that’s certainly a confirmation of a lot complaints about WoW’s difficulty curve in solo content.

I love WoW but if not for heroic raiding, I likely would have left a long time ago.

I’m a heroic (mythic) raider. That’s how I fell in love with WoW. But they can’t sustain the game alone. (Source)

There’s a widespread misunderstanding that most people even want to be “brought up.” Everyone has the tools and capability to do anything. How many do it? (Bashiok)
We thought in Cata that we could entice players to rise to the occasion to do harder content. But, you know, some players just said that’s not why they play the game. More power to them. (Source)

The notion that gaming exists (entirely or in part) as a means to improve the skills of the player is a topic all its own, but let me briefly say: that’s dumb. Games are entertainment products. Some people are indeed entertained by honing their skills and seeing increases in finesse. But in many ways that is ultimately a zero-sum endeavor – being “too good” eliminates a wide swath of potential games for you on the one end, and the limits of your own physical abilities removes games from the other end. Meanwhile, everyone can experience, say, character progression at any level.

In a game entirely based around competition, sure, go ahead and “train” your players. Some of us just want to press some buttons, experience a little escapism, and/or need an excuse to (virtually) hang out with online friends and do things together.

I’d like to know what Blizzard considers to be the big barriers.
Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it’s a 3D WASD game with a movable camera. (Bashiok)
I agree. So does a lot of data. (Source)

Man, I always supported you with WoW changes and felt really bad when you left, but that WoW comment… ouch.
We updated Elwynn Forest twice while I was there to make the game accessible. It was a lot of work. There are very hardcore aspects of WoW but there are also casual ones. Catering to both (or all) is a big challenge. That’s all I meant. I earned a reputation for “dumbing the game down” which is bizarre to me. I was countering that supposition. No offense intended.(Source)

I’m reading a lot of comments confusing accessibility with difficulty. Learning to play WoW is accessibility. Raiding is difficulty. WoW’s intent when I was there (I can’t speak for it now) was to appeal to a wide audience. Developing for a wide audience is very hard. Ulduar (my favorite raid) had two raid sizes (and optional hard modes). After that we added more difficulty tiers to broaden raiding appeal.
Is that something you didn’t want to do?
You can argue it exposed more players to the fun of raiding, but might have diminished the psychological reward of doing so. Raids also self nerf over time as players gear up, and we did across the board nerfs as well. So dedicated players would eventually get to see the content. The change was more about whether players deserved to see new content when it was new vs several patches later. (Source)
Adding multiple tiers per raid is more work. Appealing to a broad audience is more work. For once in my career, I don’t have to do that. (Source)
People struggled through bad design and confused it with mastery of difficulty.
There also was very little concept of damage meters or optimal rotations in Molten Core. The audience matured. (Source)

The raiding bit was interesting, but the fact that the very fundamental 3D interface being an issue is… illuminating. The things was take for granted, eh?

What by your experience are the constant things that come up that make learning a game hard?
1) Identifying the goal, 2) Understanding the controls, 3) Realizing where the fun is going to be. I mention that third point because too many tutorials strip away too much fun out of fear of burdening a new player.
Hand held guidance vs joy of discovery and freedom. Can`t have both.
Yes, but you can make the hand held guided part fun. Maybe you can see a dragon even if you have no business fighting one yet. (Source)

Explained another way, when you see a big drop off in players after only a few minutes then they are probably very confused. Players can’t usually tell if a game will be fun that quickly, but if they have no idea what’s going on, then they may quit. You see this a lot when casual players can’t mouse look, a skill second nature to many core gamers. (Source)

Look, you can play a very demanding game casually or invest many hours in a simple iPhone game. WoW appeals / tries to appeal to many gamers who don’t fit the traditional gamer mold. League doesn’t go after those gamers. Simple as that. (Source)
I can mouse look, play WoW, and adventure games. Dont consider myself (hard)core gamer. Core/casual split seems so limiting
It is very limiting. However, when even game developers watch a brand new player struggle with controls it’s eye opening. (Source)

Alright, I’m good.

Still… see what I mean? Could someone point out where else we could read some rather frank discussions on the nuts and bolts of game design? Developer blogs are almost entirely marketing vehicles that only tangentially resemble the final product. I am not suggesting Ghostcrawler is necessarily best designer out there, or even a good one. He might not be the one we deserve, but he’s the one we need right now.

Asocial and Antisocial

There was an interesting blue post a few days ago explaining why Blizzard had yet to embrace the GW2-esque open-tap philosophy:

The main reason we don’t embrace a fully open-tap world is that we feel that those mechanics are asocial. To be fair, that is certainly better than antisocial – no question there, and antisocial experiences usually reflect spawning and mechanics that we need to adjust. However, while a world in which everyone runs around damaging things a few times (or however much is needed to qualify for credit) may be one in which you don’t feel bad about other players being around, at some point it also makes those players nearly indistinguishable from NPCs or bots with decent AI. You don’t need to talk, or ask if someone has room in their group or would like to join yours. You just attack a few times, and then move on.

The blue dev (Watcher in this case) went on to assert that they “commonly” saw transient groups forming for daily quests, and perhaps some of those groups became less transient over time. And to an extent, I even agree that games like GW2 might have inadvertently crossed some line wherein other players are simply irrelevant when questing (as opposed to registering as something to think about).

At the same time… are we playing the same game? Even as far back as Wrath, there was basically no interaction between me and the random strangers who were competing with me for spawns. Any time that I did buckle down for blind social interaction, the majority of the outcomes were A) waiting around for them to get back from being AFK, and/or B) them being barely pulling their weight, and/or C) them trying to wheetle me into doing more of their daily quests for them. Indeed, that whole awkward parting scenario is generally why I avoided any stranger contact that I could.

I suppose that I am not exactly the sort of player that Watcher was talking about or even want to socially engineer. After all, not only am I naturally asocial, but I was already a part of a guild that wasn’t recruiting, so there really was no upside to stranger interaction. Given the generally accepted churn rates of 5% per month, eventually there are going to be hundreds of thousands of new players cycling in every year, and getting them into guilds and such is paramount.

Hmm. I gotta say though, I feel that the WoW-style tagging system is archaic and antisocial at this point; Wildstar tried to split the baby and ended up with two halves of a baby too. Going forward into 2014 with an assumption that players are going to just accidentally stumble into good relationships is kinda ridiculous. How often is someone going to pick up an MMO blind without any friends from either real life or friends they met in other games? Perhaps the idea is that you can recruit from the pile of random people killing quest mobs in daily hubs? The whole thing just feels kinda sketchy considering it is a linchpin in the entire social game design edifice.

There is something to be said for needing a reason to need other players to ensure social interaction takes place. In other words, dependency (or perhaps more charitably: profit) is the impetus to take that first step towards interaction. There is also something to be said that if you have to force social interaction between two parties that otherwise would prefer not to be bothered, perhaps you should reexamine what it is you are doing in the first place and to what end.

Shouldn’t it be enough that an impromptu group gets quests done faster? It is not even as though you are punishing the solo player as it is undermining the very thing you set out to foster in the first place, e.g. social interaction. By default, all non-party members are detriments to one’s gameplay. That does not encourage me to group with them, that encourages me to endure them or move to a less busy corner of the world. If I wanted to make more friends, I would make more friends regardless of whether or not we had to expressly group together to get quest credit.

No Further Explanation Necessary

So, I have been playing through Eador: Masters of the Broken World recently a month or so ago. While sitting through the opening cinematic describing the fight between immortal Masters over control of floating islands, I had a particularly strong negative reaction once it started to specify that these Masters were in reality fighting the forces of Chaos by bringing Order to the blah blah blah.

Why explain the narrative any further? Immortal god-like beings fighting over possession of floating islands is more than enough. That’s pretty cool! The fighting Chaos with Order bit? Not so much.

See this? THIS is good.

See this? THIS is good.

I’m a narrative guy – I love stories, lore, and world-building. But between a half-assed story and a no-assed story, it’s much better to go with no-ass every time. Own your wacky premise!

Nobody is sitting around getting excited about stopping the forces of evil for the millionth time just because… evil. Keep your cliche, overarching theme if you must, but just don’t try explain it right away. If I’m not interested in becoming a more powerful god by capturing floating islands in goddamn space, facing the forces of Chaos isn’t going to move the needle either.

Design > Toxicity

One of the forum posts I was reading vis-a-vis community toxicity in hard group content – or any game, for that matter – asserted that toxicity is inevitable. I agree. “Any civilization is just three meals away from anarchy.” There is darkness in all of us, beneath the surface. Indeed, I would suggest that how we manage (and hopefully contain!) that darkness is precisely what makes us human beings in the first place.

However, I arch an eyebrow any time someone throws their hands in the air, claiming nothing can be done about the issue of toxicity in multiplayer games. We may not be able to ensure no one is ever toxic or disruptive to another player, but we sure as hell can mitigate, manipulate, and otherwise manage player behavior through system design.

An example I am still in awe over has been the Blizzard design for Hearthstone. Namely, how there is no chat feature with your opponents. Does this prevent every avenue for trolling and other “BM” (Bad Manners) behavior? Of course not. When you look at the forums though, the BM consists of stalling a full turn-timer’s worth, emoting Well Played right before the killing blow, or playing unnecessary cards before the kill. Oh, and some people get really upset when others concede before allowing them to manually deliver the final hit.

Compare that to, I don’t know, maybe any time you turn on XBox Live.

While there may not be any silver bullets for bad behavior in MMOs given the more freeform experience, I believe design can still mitigate the worst of it. For example, removing the ability to kick someone mid-combat or before loot is distributed entirely removes the ability of guild-groups to arbitrarily remove competition (at least, not after the kickee contributed). Binding BoE loot to people who do Need rolls prevents those “Need to sell on AH” players. Shared resource nodes not only prevents any animosity/misunderstandings about ninja-looted nodes, it has the pleasant byproduct of people being glad to see others, as they direct you to nodes you may have missed, helping you clear the path, etc.

Things not to do? Basically anything Wildstar is currently doing. If you have a quest to kill a certain number of mobs, you might get 8% complete per mob you kill. If some random stranger pops out of a bush and hits that same mob with an attack or two, suddenly you only receive 4% credit. Why? For the love of all that is good and holy WHY? Manually forming a group with these strangers doesn’t work to make things any faster either – the lot of you just have to kill twice as many mobs. This sort of design not only discourages cooperation and enables trolling, it fosters a (correct!) notion that other players are obstacles to your goals. The only “challenging” aspect of most of the Challenges in Wildstar is not giving yourself an aneurysm by the behavior – or very existence! – of other people.

You might be thinking I am exaggerating here. No, my friend. I did not hate perfect strangers more in Darkfall, when they could murder me at any time and full-loot my corpse. Because that was understood; that is what you signed up to do. I did not sign up to Wildstar to unknowingly steal other people’s accomplishments simply by existing in the same zone.

You might have heard that there are a lot of Group quests in Wildstar to kill powerful creatures. It’s true. What’s also true is that if you and a stranger bond in common purpose to attack one, but you tragically end up dying, you get zero credit for the kill. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why. I’m sorry, Carbine developers, for not making my very temporary fellowship with Sizzlebutt “official” by clicking some buttons on your interface. If I hadn’t died, we both would have gotten credit, but nevermind. Clearly there is some wizened, highborn logic behind this deliberate decision I am too simple to understand. Perhaps allowing dead players to receive credit for a mob eventually killed would open an exploit that unraveled your entire, expertly-crafted leveling experience. Or perhaps it never crossed your empty skulls.

Do you see what I mean about toxicity?

In an MMO, every player you meet should be an opportunity. Every aspect of your social game should be geared toward encouraging positive experiences. Every point of social friction should receive ample grease. Seriously, mind boggled at Gold Medals being tied to player deaths in LFG groups.¹ Do you know what they called that in WoW when it was implemented in Naxx? A goddamn mistake.

¹ This post was written before the news on Friday. Still, it is an idea that never should have survived the whiteboard.

MMO vs Co-Op

I was browsing the official Wildstar forums yesterday, and came across a(nother) thread on the building toxicity of the game’s LFG tool in Veteran (e.g. heroic) Dungeons. Anyone who has ever played WoW for more than a hot minute could point out the problem with the bizarre, and frankly naive, design decision Carbine has settled on: beginning Cataclysm-era coordinated difficulty combined with Gold Medal or Bust reward structures. I mean, what kind of intelligent person says “If any of this group of five cross-realm strangers dies, they get no epics even if they eventually succeed” and believes that is a good idea?

By the way, do you remember back in WoW when you could kick someone before the last boss dropped its loot? Yeah, Wildstar allows that. If you queue into a 3-man guild unit, you will only receive a chance to roll on gear on their mercy. TBC BRILLIANCE, HO!

Anyway, the typical Apologist refrain is “just don’t PUG veteran dungeons.” Hard to argue with that. Until now:

And you see thats a sad part …..why play an mmo if your only playing with certain people to get things done? your in an mmo ffs, why not try and actually get things done with random people you don’t know? thats sort of defeating the purpose OF being an mmo and not just a coop game =/

I don’t know about you, but this (poorly punctuated) post turned nearly everything I just blithely accepted as given in MMOs on its head.

People criticize solo-friendly designs – “You’re taking the Massively Multiplayer out of MMO!” – and yet not much forum-space has been given to the notion that being sequestered in your guild of friends/acquaintances isn’t very MMO-ish either. What’s so Massively Multiplayer about your even 40m (or typically much less) raiding guild? Does it even matter that there are other players running around outside of your guild tag?

Seems to me that when you zoom out a bit, there just isn’t a whole lot of difference between the srsbsn guild member and solipsistic solo player – everything outside of the circle is just background radiation.