Category Archives: Philosophy

#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.

Goldsinks

It’s all Wildstar, all the time up in this joint, but what is interesting is how many times I’ll encounter something that makes me reexamine more general MMO concepts. For example: goldsinks. Every MMO needs them, and yet Wildstar can sometimes feel like it has sinks within sinks (sinkception).

One example near and dear to my heart are AH fees. Wildstar features a 12% tax on sold goods. Having one at all is pretty standard, although wasn’t the cross-faction goblin cut 15% in WoW? Anyway, there is also a 2% or 5 silver (whichever is higher) fee on purchasing goods. And a listing fee. This can burn you pretty bad if you aren’t paying attention, as a 2s item suddenly costs 7s if you just buy the one, a 350% increase. Purchase 100 of them though, and that fee is just 2.5%.

70 copper purchase balloons into 570 copper.

70 copper purchase balloons into 570 copper.

Not impressed? Okay. I’m just getting started.

A more bizarre goldsink is that of respeccing. WoW has had respeccing fees forever, right? Sure. In Wildstar though, repeccing abilities is free and quick and absolutely painless… EXCEPT when it comes to AMPs. In other words, I can take a minute and go from DPS to healer no problem. I can mix and match anything on my action bar, including moving the “tiered” ability points around. What I can’t do is rearrange all those passive AMP points without getting dinged at an increasingly large rate. At level 50, it costs 50g. At current CREDD prices on my server, that means AMP respecs costs about $4. Every time.

Or, hey, maybe you just want to dye your clothes. Hopefully you enjoy pastel colors, because otherwise you are looking at 9.26 platinum (926g) to dye your clothes red, and a similar amount with the ever-suspiciously-rare black dye. That is quite literally $80. For one channel, out of three.

Or maybe you just want to unlock the AMP that is responsible for 20% of your class’s theoretical DPS. Sorry, it’s an ultra-rare world drop. Current price? 12p on the AH. Or $100.

Isn’t it wonderful what RMT does to one’s perspective?

I am not doubting the necessity of goldsinks¹. But I do agree with the posters on the forums that there is a profound difference between, say, an absurdly priced mount versus something that directly impacts day-to-day gameplay. Repair bills are one thing, as they act as a sort of death tax, encouraging specific behavior. But what does high AMP respecs accomplish? Discouraging people from utilizing their roles, after the deliberate design choice of making every class a hybrid? If it costs to change both AMP and Abilities around, that would at least be consistent. Instead, you have the ability to… be a crappy healer/tank at any time. Gee, thanks.

And then there’s the dye thing, which just seems pointlessly cruel. There are tons of housing sinks – including weekly upkeep on each of your plugs – but this just feels different to me, for some reason. Maybe because you already had to luck into/purchase the rare dye to begin with?

I am very much in favor of goldsinks in the form of WoW-esque 100,000g vendor mounts and other such extravagances. But the reason I am in favor of those things is because they are progressive goldsinks. In other words, these are goldsinks designed to hit players who can actually afford to pay them. Contrast that with, say, respecs. That hits everyone, in an extremely regressive way (nevermind the 70c AH item getting taxed to 5.7s). I feel like repair costs are perhaps the ultimate regressive tax, hitting the poor and inexperienced harder for essentially no good reason. I have always said that failure is its own punishment; you better have a good reason for adding an injury on top of the insult.

There have been a few people mentioning that these sinks will likely become irrelevant in the coming weeks and months as the playerbase matures. “These sinks were designed for the long haul,” they say. So, uh, is that supposed to make them better design choices? Making shit extra harsh in the free month off of release, only to fade into irrelevance as the playerbase thins out? Maybe it’s fair to assume that the negative PR of jacking goldsink rates up later is worth the initial hit now.

Still, I’d much prefer that other players act as the goldsinks (in terms of profit-taking) and not core gameplay mechanics. The latter ends up feeling a bit suspicious when you sell the means to bypass it (i.e. CREDD) in the game store.

¹ If I’m honest, I do kinda want to doubt them. The goldsinks in WoW are extremely minor at basically all levels of play, and easily circumvented with daily quest income. And yet it’s not as though the AH barons with seven-figure stockpiles are locking the average guy out from necessary AH goods.

Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

(Virtual) Friends

Zubon has a post up musing on Time to Effectiveness, in regards to how long it takes between starting the game and being at the point where your bullet hits for as much damage as a veteran’s bullet. You can contribute in EVE on Day 1 whereas a level 1 WoW character would be worse than useless in a raid of a capital city (via guard aggro).

The thing that interested me the most was when Zubon mentioned this:

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

I would immediately agree that playing progression-based games is difficult with your friends, even if you happen to live in the same house as them. Everyone has their different schedules and obligations; sometimes you feel like watching Game of Thrones instead of running another dungeon tonight, or whatever. Even if you have specific characters you use when in a group, you are essentially committing to leveling up twice, and basically consigning that friend-alt to progression limbo.

But do you know who it’s pretty easy to play with? “Friends,” i.e. the people you befriend in-game. I have been talking with the same handful of people I “met” in WoW pretty consistently for the last five years. And why would that be surprising? We all were playing the same MMO on basically the same schedule in the same manner, which is how we met in the first place; you couldn’t design a better friend/compatible person-sorting algorithm if you tried. Meanwhile, I only ever talk with my best friend IRL every few months. I met that best friend in Middle School by complete coincidence, and even though we are supremely compatible personality-wise, he just isn’t into PC gaming. With that plus distance plus schedules, the opportunities to play together would be pretty low.

All of which makes for rather conflicting design structures in many games. Friends and guilds are the social glue that keeps people playing games long after the novelty has worn out. If you start playing a game with friends, you might end up overlooking the deal-breakers that would otherwise cause you to abandon a game before the social hooks had time to sink in. On the other hand, the opposite problem can occur: if your friends don’t like the game but you do, you might end up either spending less time playing with them or quit the game to play whatever they’re playing.

So, objectively, the best outcome is quite possibly coming into the game with no friends and making some in-game instead. That way, the friends you are playing with are tailor-made to correspond with your playstyle, level of interest, and long-term goals. Plus, there is the added bonus of this particular game being “sticky,” insofar as it might be the only context in which you will get to enjoy your new friends’ company. Although I still talk with my former WoW guildmates, we really don’t have many other game preferences in common; the desire to re-subscribe to WoW to spend some non-Vent time with them is pretty strong.

In any case, as I have argued in the comments to Zubon’s post, this is pretty much a systemic problem inherent to RPGs and other games with character progression. The moment you commit to XP and levels is pretty much the same moment you commit to stratification, which by definition drives wedges between players. Unless, of course, you go ahead and make friends with those you find in your strata.

Fake Edit: Zubon and a few others have pointed out that other MMORPGs have solved this issue with scaling levels. The examples used were GW2, EVE, and City of Heroes. While I agree that the first two allow you to play together, they do not allow you to play together on the same level. Your Day 1 friend can tackle spaceships, but he/she is still stuck in a frigate while you’re flying around a supercarrier. It’s perfectly true that two friends can play the GW2 equivalent of BGs together (instant cap, full gear), but I really consider GW2’s sPvP system to be a completely separate game tacked on; it’s entirely possibly it’s changed in the last year, but unless there’s overlap between the two systems (e.g. you get XP/etc for doing sPvP) then I don’t see that as a solution. Chances are good that you bought GW2 in the first place to play the “real” game, e.g. the ones with levels and XP and such.

As for City of Heroes, I’ll have to take your word on it that there was meaningful character progression in an environment that perfectly scaled up and down. Because honestly that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms.

All of this is somewhat besides the point of this post though. It kinda doesn’t matter if you can play with the friends you brought into a game in a perfectly scaled environment, if they don’t match your own playing habits and level of interest in the new game. If you like City of Heroes and they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how good the game is – your options are basically to quit, divide your time, or make new friends. Stratification makes the situation worse, of course, but it’s more of a symptom of a larger problem IMO.

FFXII

In the midterm period inbetween steady access to the internet, I decided now was as good a time as any to actually get around to playing some of the PlayStation games I own but never bothered turn on. My first choice? As the title suggests: Final Fantasy XII.

All I can say is… yikes.

To say that I was a Squaresoft fanboy growing up is an understatement of the decade(s). Indeed, Final Fantasy 7 remains my #2 game of all time – and that is despite having first played FF6 on the SNES when it came out. While the “back to the roots” FF9 nearly derailed my fanboism outright, FFX quickly set things back on the right track. Sadly, when I heard that FFXI was going to be an online-only MMO, I pretty much cut ties with the company; I stayed long enough to pick up FFX-2, but that had the dubious distinction of being the only FF game I ever sold back to a video game shop for store credit (after beating it, of course). Looking back, I think my lack of engagement with the series had more to do with college and life changes than feelings of “betrayal,” but regardless FFX-2 was the last FF game I played.

Now, I’m not saying anything necessarily about the gameplay of FFXII. To be honest, in the 30 minutes I’ve been “playing” I haven’t seen all that much of it. And if I recall correctly, FFXII was widely criticized as being non-interactive. But a more pressing concern right now is how awful the game looks on my TV. The default view is double-letterboxed such that it easily loses 15″ off the TV screen. And even then the pixelation is horrendous.

I technically bought FF7 on a Steam sale a while back (because, you know, FF7) and it’s entirely possible I will encounter similar graphical issues. But to an extent I almost see this as an existential threat to older games. Or, rather, older games that were straddling the cutting-edge for their time. Things that seemed ground-breaking for its time in comparison to more sprite-based games have looped around into barely-playable nonsense graphics in less than 10 years.

It kinda makes you wonder though, whether or not this will be a recurring issue as time goes by or if it was a specific moment in computer graphics history. Personally, I’m leaning towards the latter. After all, the original Crysis has held up exceptionally well and even the original Far Cry wasn’t that bad. But have you tried playing KotOR lately? I muscled through that a few years ago, and it left me sore with the effort. It wasn’t even the graphics really, but little things like not being able to pan the camera upwards. It’s Star Wars and you got huge alien cities and you can’t look much farther than the main character’s low-polygon ass.