Category Archives: Philosophy

Progression

I am probably nearing the end of my focused Hearthstone play. Why? Two words: beta wipes. All progress, cards, gold, etc, will be wiped at least once in the upcoming weeks, and possibly more than once. If you happened to purchase something for real money, you will get the equivalent amount of gold once Hearthstone goes Live.

All of this is known information, so why am I bringing it up? That’s actually an interesting question, as I examined my roiling emotions after a string of recent Arena losses. Scrubbing out at 1-3 or – god help you – 0-3 sucks. Hard. Each Arena buy-in requires $1.99 or 150g, with the latter amount requiring roughly three days of dailies plus 30 wins in Ranked/Unranked play (i.e. against other people) to collect. Or just complete four dailies. Going that route actually works out pretty good as long as you keep Hearthstone as your sort of “side game” that you play for 30-45 minutes each day before playing your main game; as long as you keep yourself from getting too into things, you can legitimately play (Arena) for free pretty easily.

Alternatively, if you win at least 7 Arena matches in the buy-in, you get enough gold to play again.

What I got for going 9-2.

Money in the bank.

As you can see, I received 310g for having gone 9-2 with the Rogue (nine wins is the maximum). An earlier 8-3 record resulted in 215g. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially given the Arena portion of the game is significantly more interesting to me – playing against Constructed decks feels pretty rote in comparison. Plus, where else would I get to screw around with Legendaries in what feels like a guaranteed draw for each Arena match? You aren’t likely to see those and other high-powered cards from packs you open, but seeing epics and such is pretty common across 30 random draws.

But then the RNG floor fell out. I felt I was getting a good handle on which Heroes were best in Arena – things are much different than in Constructed where you can build around combos – but I suddenly realized how exceptional my winning decks truly were. My 8-3 Druid deck had eight removal cards, including AoE removal. The 9-2 Rogue deck had two Saps, a bunch of Silence creatures with multiple ways of returning them to my hand, a fistful of removal, and two Defias Ringleaders that make going second a complete joke when you drop a 2/3 and 2/1 on your first turn.

Here was the deck:

Building this was so much fun.

Building this was so much fun.

You don’t need to know anything about the Hearthstone other than that this deck was unfair. Three Fan of Knives, two Blade Flurry, two Sap, two Patient Assassins, Betrayal… Jesus, it was sublime. Hearthstone Arena is entirely about tempo, and let’s just say most games involved me playing dubstep to their John Cage 4’33″.

Needless to say, I have spent the past three days falling back down the Bell Curve face-first. A string of awful Hero choices plus awful card choices plus opponents who all but win by round four (having demolished my early game). It is entirely possible this all has been by design, via hidden MMR rankings. One of the biggest Hearthstone innovations amongst the pile of others has been the fact that Arena games are unmoored from any particular tournament. If you play a Booster Draft in Magic Online, you’re playing either for 15 minutes or two hours depending on your record, against whomever happened to stroll into your tournament with you. In Hearthstone, you can play one Arena game and then come back a week later if you want. This is fantastic… provided you don’t rely on being a big fish in a small pond for your wins.

All this losing made me realize that I don’t like it. Losing, that is. A fair ranking system is based around ensuring you lose 50% of the time, but it seems to me that losing feels much worse than the positive winning emotions, especially when losing results in opportunity costs and/or costs you real money. Presumably the delta between winning and losing is compensated by the fun you have actually playing the game. But I am coming to the realization that it isn’t enough. I need a tangible sense of progression too. Knowing that the pity packs are full of cards going away in X number of months means losses are simply time consigned to the abyss.

The obvious counter-points are A) new gear tiers in MMOs result in obsolescence of progression, B) time spent gaming is technically “wasted” by default, and C) how in god’s name did you play Counter-Strike for four years then?

The answer to the first is pretty simple: properly-formatted achieved goals can’t be taken away. My goal in WoW was never “have BiS gear in every slot” – that is just a recipe for disappointment. Instead, my goals were more general, like “be better off than I was yesterday.” Grinding Valor, getting raid drops, capping Conquest… all of these things resulted in a feeling of sustained progression that persisted even when new tiers came out. In fact, my “investment” in gearing up paid off in getting the new gear quicker or more easily.

Obviously I quit playing WoW, but I still don’t see that time as wasted; leisure activities being a waste of time presupposes an (nonexistent) objective purpose in life, which answers point B.

As for C), well… that’s the pickle. I feel games like Counter-Strike allow you to experience meaningful fun even as you ultimately lose a round/match, probably because winning/losing doesn’t matter in the first place. As long as I pulled off some kind of crazy kill before dying, I could walk away satisfied even if our team was otherwise destroyed. Which is leading me to believe that the existence of progression in a game sets up its own failure, given that losing progression (either directly or via opportunity cost) makes me feel worse than gaining progression. At the same time, I tend to gravitate towards games with “investment” opportunities over games where I am “just” killing time. All games kill time, but killing time + progression makes it feel more meaningful on top of whatever arbitrary goal-achievement neurochemistry is going on.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I lost a bunch of Hearthstone Arena matches this weekend and am sad as a result. Going from being more than self-sustaining to practically in-the-hole playing is bad, and there not being any sense of long-term progression (in the beta) makes it worse. Also, trying to unlock Shaman cards in Constructed play feels terrible; seriously, Blizz, why did you put all the juicy Shaman cards in the packs? Chain Lightning is practically required to get anywhere.

Wait a minute, why am I in-game again? Might as well knock out this daily…

The Siren Call of Dynamism

Looks like we have the next Jesus game:

EverQuest Next Could Fix Everything Wrong With MMORPGs

I’ve played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I’ve spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That’s a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.

I probably should have stopped reading that Kotaku article right there, but I’m a masochist at heart.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things I’m reading about EverQuest Next sound interesting. Voxel-based things, somehow without looking like Cube World. And… err… yeah. Classless/multi-class systems like The Secret World/FF11. Stylized graphics like WoW, Firefall, Wildstar. Red zones on the ground that you shouldn’t stand in, like most every game these days. Jumping and “parkour” (which means what, exactly, in this context?) like in Guild Wars 2. Reducing abilities down to eight, like Guild Wars 2 again. Dynamic events and “calls to arms” like Guild Wars 2 and Firefall and Warhammer. Hell, considering they brought over Jeremy Soule to do their soundtrack, they probably should have just called the game EverGuildQuestWars2Next.

Then there are the hype red flags. A StoryBricks-based AI that wanders around and sets up camp organically? Neat. But then I started reading this interview:

So, to better understand the Rallying Calls, I wasn’t clear on some things with David Georgeson’s example: say you’ve built a big city, and built these stone walls around it, and now an army has come for a siege. Is that something that happens over a couple hours, or a week?

McPherson: That army siege lasts until the players on the server have completed that stage.

[...]

With the “emergent AI,” though, how can you maintain something indefinitely? If the army comes to attack, and is defeated outright in an hour or the players just ignore it, what then? Do you keep spawning enemies?

Butler: Until the things that spawn them are destroyed.

[...]

So, if orcs are released into the world and wander around looking for areas they like, they’re not coming from some point and spreading outward, they’re spawning from camps they set up?

McPherson: Right, perfect example. So in phase four of this Rallying Call, four large orc warband camps spawn in the hills. Those camps are literally swarming with orcs.

Butler: And they’re unassailable.

McPherson: Until you meet the requirements to move on to that next area and eliminate those. Then you and your army push past them and assault them in their homeland.

Butler: You try to fireball the palisade walls in the orc camps, but the fireball doesn’t take down the walls because you need catapults, because that’s what unlocks the next phase and gives you the ability to assault the camps directly.

[...]

What happens if players don’t do any of this?

Butler: It’s simple, it doesn’t advance. So just like a chapter of a book, right? You’ve got your personal storyline, you’re playing through the game. Your personal contribution and the story that goes with it goes on at whatever pace you choose to pursue. The server has a storyline as well, expressed with these Rallying Calls. If players choose not to pursue them, the clock just doesn’t advance.

Oh. So… these things are completely indistinguishable from anything we’ve seen a thousand times before, all the way back to simple phased quests in WoW? Will there be a little “Catapults put into position: 0/2″ blurb in the middle-right side of the screen too? How dynamic and revolutionary.

Getting back to the Kotaku article, the author presents his final conclusion like this:

Addressing the Real Problem

Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.

That’s the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they’re still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we’re playing the same thing over and over again.

Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you’ve got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.

EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.

Now, he says he has been playing MMOs for the last 15 years, but I get the distinct impression that he hasn’t. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based. An ever-changing world is irrelevant in comparison to a completely static world populated with other people you like hanging around with. People are still playing the original EverQuest for god’s sake! This is besides the fact that there isn’t a “living, breathing, ever-changing world” in EQN or anywhere.

Even if EQN or some future game actually managed to pull it off, would you even want to play it? As I pointed out back in 2011, player impact on the game world is considerably less interesting than many people make it out to be. Imagine if xxArthasDKlolxx killed an NPC and now you can never interact with said NPC again. Is that what you want? Feature sets that include “destructible environments” always have to be followed up by explanations about how it isn’t permanent, lest new players be introduced to a cratered wasteland made by bored griefers.

EVE has been in the news lately with its dynamic player impact, but all of that has been confined to player social structures, and not the game-world itself; star systems have changed ownership, but it’s not as though there are less NPCs or ice rocks in the universe.

That’s how you do dynamic content: with people. Whether orcs spawn in the valley or on the hill is extremely trivial, considering you still have to remove them in pretty much the same manner as you did 15 resets ago. GW2 has committed itself to two-week content obsoletion cycles, which I guess is one way to avoid the tedium of redoing the same thing over and over. Then again, even if the set pieces change, you are still interacting with the world the same way, more or less, as you did at level 1. “Kill this, click that, jump here, fill up your meter, claim rewards.”

I’m not saying that dynamic/changing content can’t be fun, I’m saying that dynamic content is not some silver bullet for boredom. Things might change randomly or dynamically, but your understanding of their mechanics only increases over time. Nils has talked about this years ago, as I have, but I think Klepsacovic summed it up more poetically here:

That last part is the key: anything I could think of.  Early on I did not imagine what else I could want to do in this world.  I’d done only a tiny fraction of what I could.  This had two effects.  One was that I had not run into a limit yet.  The other was that I could not imagine a limit.  I did not imagine that the sky ended, that the quests ended, that the raids could all be done.  These were all true, but since I did not know them and did not even imagine them, they were irrelevant.  I was running the infinite distance of a circular path.

Since then I’ve learned and my behavior has changed.  I do not run in circular paths.  I run out, find the edge, map it out, and then fill it in.  This means that very early on my mind has already filled the size of the world, so that all that can happen after are details, with nothing big to be revealed.  In my mind it looks like two strategies for filling in a circle.  Both start at the center.  One draws a line out to the edge and now the radius is known.  It then spirals inward, knowing exactly where it is headed.  The other starts the spiral at the center.  It will cover the same area, but it will do so not knowing where the edge is, what the limits are, until it reaches them.

Cynicism is easy, but it’s also an appropriate response to any claim that non-player dynamism is going to solve anything. You can still get bored playing a procedurally-generated game; if that fact is not the simplest indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of Mike Fahey’s Kotaku argument, I don’t know what is. People are the only thing that will continue making a game interesting once you have mapped out the circle. The player-built structures and other such things might bridge the gap, but it won’t be enough if you aren’t making friends and setting down roots. Given how EQN is F2P though… well, I’m not holding out hope for a particularly stable, long-term community.

All that said, EQN is now on my radar. If it’s fun, I’ll play it. Hell, I’m kinda interested in the incredibly devious EQN Landmark “game” where you’ll likely pay SOE for the privilege of building content for them (Landmark is F2P, but that just means the costs are hidden). Imagine building your own house – as in, your IRL house – and placing that in game… or selling it to other people. I have never used Portal 2′s puzzle-making feature, but I am always a fan of developers giving players tools to build in-game stuff. Crowd-sourcing is great, but even better is the ability to sorta build your own game design portfolio.

Would I get bored with EQN eventually? No doubt. But I don’t see that inevitability as a negative – it is simply the natural consequence of learning and experiencing things. An MMO doesn’t have to last forever to be worth playing. People and relationships don’t last forever either, but I don’t see anyone saying those are a waste of time.

Worst of All Worlds

A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.

I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.

This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.

The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?

The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.

Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).

I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.

¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”

In Defense of Used Games

I have talked about used games before. I am going to talk about them again, as a rebuttal against this video from Total Biscuit regarding how he justifies his belief that used games are bad.

Before I start, there is one fundamental truth that needs to be acknowledged: a used game sale is a new game sale at a lower price-point. No one is seeking out used games because they are used, they are sought because they are less expensive. Incidentally, this same principal applies if someone is able to re-sell a game they bought, as the ability to recoup part of the cost means the original purchase becomes less expensive.

Without further ado, let me examine each of TB’s arguments against used games:

1) Used Game Sales support shady/pushy retailers

Or, the GAME (in UK) and GameStop Are Bad argument.

It is absolutely true that retailers who specialize in used game sales push used games sales over new ones; the original sale is a recouping of an investment for the store, whereas each additional resell is nearly pure profit. I am not interested in defending the practices of GameStop (etc) though, primarily because it is irrelevant and red herring besides. No matter how much you swing the “games as licenses” argument, the fact remains that used game sales are legal in the United States and presumably elsewhere – GAME and GameStop would have been sued into the ground otherwise. The shadiness of any organization does not reflect on the product they provide. You can picket Wal-mart for all sorts of legitimate reasons, but that does not make cheap groceries immoral.

I have gone into a GameStop all of twice in my life, whereas I frequented a mom-and-pop used game shop next to the local theater for the better part of a decade. I went there because their used games were cheaper, and you received more store credit (or cash) than GameStop provided, all in a no-pressure sale environment. Ergo, any argument that uses the removal of used games as a vehicle to attack a retailer you don’t like is simply ridiculous. GameStop’s practices have nothing to do with the “question” of used games, as there are alternative stores which do not behave in similar fashion.

2) Used games do not depreciate

This honestly reminds me of the “you wouldn’t download a car” PSA. Even if we take this claim on face value… so what? Is the argument supposed to be that used game sales would have been fine if the AI started glitching out on its own five years from now?

To be charitable, I am going to assume instead that people are referring to how physical depreciation of goods naturally differentiates two otherwise identical products, potentially justifying the premium on the unused version. In which case, I’d argue that something similar already occurs even in purely digital products.

Videogames are not released in a vacuum – they are always a product of their times. While the actual data bits do not decay, the value and meaning of them in the mind of a player certainly can. There are whole classes of videogames that I literally cannot bring myself to play anymore, because the graphics are too primitive, or the resolution too low, and so on. Innovation in mechanics or design can render older titles feeling stilted or slow, even though nothing in the original game itself has changed. Some games hold up better than others, of course, and many older games are arguably better than new titles. But on a certain base level, videogames do depreciate, if not literally then culturally.

If you do not find this counter-argument particularly compelling, that’s fine, but allow me to make two final observations. First, no one expects a game to remain $59.99 two, three, four years after release. If games do not depreciate in value, why do you think we see the companies themselves reduce the price? Second, how much do you think your unopened City of Heroes or Battlefield 2 box will go for these days?

3) Music and Film industries are less harmed by secondary sales

TB’s point here is a roundabout justification for how videogames are a special case when it comes to secondary sales, despite music and movies also being digital goods without depreciation. Buying used movies is less harmful to studios, he argues, because a particular film can make the bulk of its money in the theater, followed by Pay-Per-View, DVD sales, rentals, and finally syndication on TV networks. Similarly, music artists get the bulk of their profits from concert tickets, in addition to (small) payments from streaming services and finally the default CD sales. In other words, music and movies have multiple revenue streams whereas videogames have just the one.

To which I must ask: whose fault is that?

As a consumer, you are not responsible for a company’s business model. It is perfectly fine to want the developers to be paid for their work, or to wish the company continued success. But presuming some sort of moral imperative on the part of the consumer is not only impossible, it’s also intellectually dishonest. You and I have no control over how a game company is run, how much they pay their staff, what business terms they ink, or how they run their company. Nobody asked EA to spend $300+ million on SWTOR. Nobody told Curt Schilling to run 38 Studios into the ground. Literally nobody wanted THQ to make the tablet that bankrupted the studio.

What is worse though is the implicit moral superiority that is derived for buying “legit.” If game companies and their designers deserve to be paid, and we have some moral obligation to do so, doesn’t that mean they deserve ALL the money? I cannot even begin to imagine the mental gymnastics Total Biscuit had to perform when he denigrated used games and celebrated Steam sales in the same breath. When you buy a game for 75% off, that is you robbing the game company of 75% of the money they deserve. Not even deserve, really, considering by many metrics they are entitled to much, much more than the purchase price given the total amount of enjoyment derived.

That sounds absurd, and it is, but that is my point; you cannot make the moral imperative argument and only go halfway. A company either deserves $59.99 or they don’t. Alternatively, you are not responsible for their business models at all, and are fully justified in maximizing your consumer surplus, e.g. by waiting for sales, buying used, etc. It is noble to wish these designers success, at least when such nobility is followed-up with busting out your checkbook. Otherwise, it is so many empty words.

4) Once used games are removed, games will be cheaper

No, seriously, Total Biscuit actually said this, presumably with a straight face.

Why in god’s name would anyone rationally assume that the removal of competition (in the form of secondary sales) would force or even encourage game prices to decrease? Everyone keeps pointing to Steam with its effects on PC gaming, as if Steam weren’t the exception that proved the rule. Everyone acknowledges that used games on the PC haven’t existed for quite some time, but no one seems to follow-up that thought with what should have been an obvious question to ask: were there big discounts on PC games back before Steam?

Good lord, no! You were at the complete mercy of retailers who almost never marked anything down from MSRP. And why would they? You literally could not buy these games anywhere else. If you found a good deal, it was likely because nobody was buying that game and the store wanted to liquidate their stock. Outside of fire sales, there was/is always going to be resistance from retailers over discounting a game’s price because there is a minimum cost involved with pressing a DVD, shipping it across the country, unloading it in the back, and paying people to sort and shelve it.

Incidentally, this is another reason why I don’t think future console games will be cheaper: there will still be hard copies sold. Do you think retailers would let Microsoft sell Halo 6 for $40 online and $59.99 in stores? Of course, there is a pseudo-analog that exists right now between PC vs digital download games, with things wildly alternating for no apparent reason. For example, it’s somehow $20 cheaper Amazon to ship me DVD of Bioshock Infinite than it is to download a copy of it. Or maybe that does make sense, insofar as what I explained earlier about retailers trying to liquidate stock.

If you legitimately believe Xbox One games are going to be cheaper, let me ask you two things. First, what kind of deals have you seen on XBLA titles? Similar in size, scope, and frequency to Steam sales? Microsoft has already dabbled in digital games for which no secondary sales exist, so their pricing behavior now may reflect any potential behavior in the future. Second, what kind of deals have you seen on Origin in the last, I dunno, two years? There have been a few recently, but very rarely more than 50%, and they are not nearly on a scale as Steam. That is a publisher who has as near a 100% profit margin on every digital sale as possible, and even they are not willing to compete on price with retailers who sell game codes on EA’s own platform!

The point here is that Steam is the exception that proves the rule. I bought Tomb Raider on the PC for $20 a mere three months – three months – after its $49.99 release. Granted, it was via Green Man Gaming, but it activated on Steam. Do you honestly believe that the only difference between our present console MSRP reality and a hypothetical all-digital future is the mere possibility of resell? That companies would be fine with a $30 markdown for a limited time a few months after release? Maybe. Maybe we don’t see similar sales because GameStop (etc) would buy a few pallets of discs at $20/each to sell at $40 after the sale is over. Then again, I could have done that exact same thing via GMG and just sold the activation codes. Actually… that’s not a bad idea…

Simply put, this argument requires a striking amount of faith in game publishers to work. Consumers are being asked to cede an enormous amount of implicit value, not just in resell value, but also in control over how they play these games (tied to accounts, phone home every 24 hours, no borrowing, etc). We are asked to cede these values all in the hopes that companies like Microsoft will not simply keep charging $59.99 out of… well, out of the goodness of their hearts. That is not enough for me. There is certainly every economic incentive to keep things running business-as-usual, after all.

5) Used games cost the companies money in terms of support/servers.

It is true that game companies “must” provide support to even non-paying (i.e. used game) customers in a way that movie and music companies do not. However, there are two things wrong with the argument TB is presenting. First, it sort of assumes that the game was not worth playing for very long in the first place. Total Biscuit’s example was how a company would need to provide support to a gamer for two months, and then a new player who bought the copy from the first guy for another two months, and a third person, and so on. The difference between that scenario and one guy who plays continuously for 6+ months is… what?

Total Biscuit’s second point about non-payers in multiplayer (presumably driving up bandwidth costs or whatever) caused me to facepalm IRL. Maybe he has never heard about why the Free-2-Play model works, or more importantly how it works? Someone playing the latest Call of Duty secondhand is providing content to “legitimate” players in a way that a no-longer-playing gamer by definition is not. I mean, that’s the premise of the argument, right? That the first dude sold his game, and is now an empty seat in a lobby somewhere. You do not even need to have the full F2P development plan set up to appreciate the fact that an extra body is making your multiplayer experience that much more worthwhile when it otherwise could/would have been nobody.

Summation

As I pointed out in the beginning, let me point out again: used game sales are new game sales at a lower price point. Nothing is stopping companies from lowering the prices for their games and otherwise being more competitive with used games. You might think that used game prices would simply adjust to compensate, and maybe they would, but that is an argument against selling at anything less than full MSRP, ever. Which is clearly ridiculous.

In any case, time marches on. Even though I see this forceful transition into all-digital games as a net-negative for gamers (and it is), I am obviously not against digital platforms themselves. I am just a bit miffed that the transition is being accelerated by Microsoft (etc) before the question on the transferability of licenses is fully settled, at least in US law. Believe me, the day will come when we shall be able to buy a Steam game (license) and then sell it to someone else after we are done.

At which point I’m sure the suits will pine for the days when it was at least possible for someone to lose their disc.

Edit: Removed incorrect “et tal” usage. Thanks, Tobold.

Instant Gratification vs Fun Investment

All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”

The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.

One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.

But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.

I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!

Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.

Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.

Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.

I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?

You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.

The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.

All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.

¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.

² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.

The Cart and the Horse

Why would someone start playing a game that was only fun with the friends you made after playing the game?

One of the criticisms of my Darkfall series of posts was that I never even tried to join a clan. This is true, and I said up-front that I was not going to try; it is why I labeled the series “Unfair Impressions” in the first place. Part of the reason I made such a decision was that I am not particularly feeling sociable at the moment. Another part is that, ironically, it didn’t seem fair to whomever’s social fabric I would be using like a dish rag; I don’t fully subscribe to Gevlon’s worldview, but getting a social benefit without returning the favor does feel like leeching to me.

The biggest reason though, is that I fundamentally believe that games (even MMOs) should be fun in of themselves first.

Think about your first MMO experience. Did you start playing alone? I walked into Azeroth with nothing, and left six years later with a half-dozen friends from across the country who still ask me to join them at the next New England meet-up. That is the sort of MMO and “virtual world” dream scenario, right? But just like any relationship, it did not develop overnight. It took time. Time spent playing the game without said friends. And at any time, that window of opportunity to convert me to long-term guild player could have closed if I didn’t feel engaged or entertained enough compared to my gaming alternatives.

I am not against a game requiring investment to play, or even a game in which the most enriching experiences are to be found in grouping. I am against a game requiring a priori buy-in to justify itself. It is not reasonable, to me, to suggest clan play makes the sort of new player experience I wrote about irrelevant. Maybe Darkfall doesn’t care about catering to new players or “hand-holding,” and that’s fine. But I feel that it is a tiny bit ridiculous to then claim the game is good (or another game is bad) when you have already committed to that position before even downloading the client.

Any game is better with friends. Requiring friends in order to have fun playing a game at all is not a strength, it’s a weakness. A deficiency. There will be thousands of players playing your game for the first time, alone. Does the game then facilitate friendships? Good. Does the game present a whole bunch of impenetrable nonsense? Bad. All your 30-minute boat rides and clever grouping schemes won’t work if the players never even make it out of what passes for a tutorial.

The longer I play something like Planetside 2, the greater the opportunity for me to get hooked into somebody’s social fabric, even if I’m kicking and screaming against it the whole way. In fact, joining an Outfit would be a sort of natural evolution to someone’s daily gameplay. But that evolution is only possible because the underlying game is fun to play, e.g. I’m playing it a lot right now, solo. With Darkfall, the consensus seems to be that the opposite is true: you have fun playing a lot only after being integrated into a social fabric woven before you actually start playing.

To me, that just sounds like putting the cart before the horse.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?

Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.

In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?

Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?

Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.

The Lockpicking Corollary

In a game with optional lockpicking mechanics, designers must include chests and doors and such that contain treasure to justify the investment of (usually) finite skill points in an otherwise non-combat skill. This reward cannot be too generous however, as it otherwise moves lockpicking from being an “interesting choice” into becoming the only reasonable option.

If a player got midway through a game only to discover a plot-specific item or one-of-a-kind upgrade was behind a door they could not open, the player would be understandably upset. At the same time, without such incentives the opportunity cost of taking Lockpicking over other skills is usually pretty high.

In games with Lockpicking or Hacking, I almost always pour points into training these skills because the “what’s in the boooooooox” feeling is too strong, despite my inevitable disappointment that it’s just some ammo and currency of negligible value. But what else could the designers really do? It all seems like an inevitable Lose-Lose scenario the very moment you introduce the choice; I feel bad for leaving unopened containers behind, and am disappointed with what they contain.

The Stealth Dilemma

As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.

Surprisingly brutal.

Surprisingly brutal.

So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?

Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.

Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.

As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.

There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.

The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.

Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.

And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?

It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.