Saturday, December 27, 2008

Personal Quests

First off, Happy Holidays, everyone. New Year's is coming up soon, and I probably won't post again before then, so Happy New Year. My resolution for the new year is to be awesome.

Anyway, I'm going to talk about quests now. Quests have come to be an assumed part of just about every western RPG. JRPGs are, on the whole, more linear than western RPGs, and thus can control the flow of story and gameplay more easily, providing the player with regular feedback on their actions, but in a nonlinear (or at least less linear) RPG there is an ever-present risk of the player’s actions feeling meaningless (I’m looking at you, Legend of Mana). Quests are a way to avoid this – by placing quest-givers around the world who need the character to help them with some problem, the player can find regular short-term goals to guide gameplay as they slowly progress toward a real or imaginary goal.

There are, however, a couple problems with quest-based gameplay (actually, more than a couple, but I'm going to try really hard to limit myself to two). One is that it severely limits the range of possibilities for the story, because engaging in endless quests only makes sense if your character is an "adventurer" - which really just means that they're the kind of character that likes to go on quests. Another problem, which is closely related to the first, is that it prevents your character from having a very strong personality, because their actions are largely dictated by what various NPCs tell them to do, and because you're rewarded for playing the kind of character that will do any and every quest (that isn't eeeevil) regardless of how silly or out-of-character it is. Put another way, it forces you to play a character for whom no task is out-of-character.

So how do we deal with these problems? Well, I guess you could try to address the second problem by making the character picky and refuse to do certain quests, but that doesn't change the fact that they're an adventurer with no self-determination, it just means that there's a more limited range of tasks they can do. You could try to fix the first problem by writing the setting such that "quests" aren't random mercenary assignments but structured actions leading toward a definite goal, but then you've just made a linear game. Linear games can be fun, but right now we're trying to figure out a way to make a less-linear game more interesting.

What I would do is change the nature of quests by making them character-driven. As it is, in many cases quests are just excuses for you to go and loot a dungeon, because you read online that some rare item you want is in there, so why can't going to find that rare item just be the quest? And I'm not talking about going to fetch it for someone else, I mean that your character finds a book that talks about some powerful rare item that's supposed to be hidden at location X, and your character now has the "Find the rare item" quest, because they want that item. This is a very simple example and doesn't sound very exciting, but you can push the idea into interesting places by adding one more layer: character goals.

The quest described above fulfills a pretty clear goal: gain power. We'll say, then, that this quest is under the umbrella of the "gain power" goal. Now what if, in the book, you also found a reference to the person who created the rare item (let's call him "Melchior")? That might spark another goal: learn more about Melchior. Perhaps if you start looking you'll find out that he's still alive (somehow), and you can eventually find him and befriend him. For that matter, your character might be interested in becoming a master blacksmith, in which case finding Melchior and becoming his apprentice is a way of acheiving a very long term goal (maybe you've had the goal since the beginning of the game).

So we have a series of goals, and each goal can be forwarded by a series of quests. You still have quest givers, but rather than being people who ask you to perform a task on their behalf, they're people who provide you with help on the way to completing your goals. Every once in a while you encounter an element new enough that it creates a totally new goal, such as the first time you hear about a potential future rival, the Black Knight, or the first time you meet a potential romantic interest. The people or places where you first acquire new goals are effectively meta-quest givers, which spark a whole new questline. So far, we've managed to make the quests seem more personal, but we've done so just by rewording the same quests you might have been doing anyway (instead of going to a dungeon retrieve item X for NPC Y in exchange for item Z, you learn about item Z from NPC Y and go to the dungeon explicitly to retrieve it).

But we can get more work out of this idea. What if goals aren't just folders that hold different quests in them, but equippable like items? While you have the "gain power" goal equipped, you're more likely to find quests that fall under than objective, and it affects your dialogue options with NPCs. Maybe they even have game mechanical effects (the "get revenge" goal makes you do 5% more damage to enemies, while the "become a master blacksmith" goal grants you +10% xp from repairing items, etc.). What this means is that the player has a mechanism for explicitly telling the game what they're interested in doing (maybe they think the Black Knight sounds interesting and want to find him, or maybe they don't really care), which lets the game give them more content related to the things they're actually interested in pursuing (rather than giving them quests in a totally haphazard manner). In fact, you could use the player's choices of goals to pursue as a way of determining what kind of form the overarching story and their ultimate goal takes.

If the player is pursuing all of the sneaky assassin related goals, then the game will start to focus more on stealth and won't even bother presenting the player with quests that are out-of-character, like the "become a knight of the order of X". If, however, the player pursues the "become a knight of the order of X" goal, the sneaky assassin related goals don't show up, and the player may in fact acquire the "destroy the sneaky assassin guild" goal. If you want to have multiple endings to your game, then you can make several climactic-sounding quests, but which one appears for your character depends on what kind of character you've been playing. The less-curious player might go through the entire game thinking that the quests they played through were how the game was "supposed" to be played, because they aren't presented with options that don't make sense for the character they're playing, while the curious player will discover that different options allows them to effectively play a different game altogether.

Well, whether you like the player-customized gameplay idea or not, I don't see any reason why developers shouldn't start making a habit of making quests about your character, instead of making them about the NPC that gave the quest to you. It seems like it would just be more satisfying to achieve your own goals than it is to help a person you've never met before achieve their goal and get paid 200 gold pieces for it.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ubisoft and the No DRM PR Stunt

About to go to bed, but I wanted to throw in a comment on this. Apparently Prince of Persia will ship for the PC with no copyright protection measures. This is theoretically good news, since it suggests that someone is listening to gamers and their rather straightforward points. However, the article also quotes an Ubisoft community representative giving us this gem:
You`re right when you say that when people want to pirate the game they will but DRM is there to make it as difficult as possible for pirates to make copies of our games. A lot of people complain that DRM is what forces people to pirate games but as PoP PC has no DRM we`ll see how truthful people actually are. Not very, I imagine. Console piracy is something else entirely and I`m sure we`ll see more steps in future to try to combat that.
Wow, nice job predicting that your own initiative is going to fail. I guess the idea here is that he's trying to intensify the sense that they're giving gamers a "challenge" to prove them wrong, in an effort to boost sales, but they seemed to have missed the part where the people who care about DRM aren't morons, and a lot of them aren't going to give you any brownie points (or $60 wads of cash) for releasing a DRM free game and then turning around and demeaning players.

In short, seeing the headline on Slashdot made me think "Oh yay, someone's listening, maybe I'll have to buy Prince of Persia," and then reading the statement immediately changed my mind by reminding me that Ubisoft doesn't really care about gamers - they just like marketing stunts.

I will be curious to see what kind of piracy rates Prince of Persia has, but I'm prepared to take any analysis of the numbers, especially from Ubisoft, with a hefty grain of salt.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Fallout 3: Part 2

So when I said that Part 2 was "coming soon," apparently I meant a week later. (edit: if you're hear for tips, scroll to the bottom, this section is editorial)

So, I probably left you with a terrible impression of Fallout 3 after my last post. If so, that means it's time for me to set about the ambitious task of reversing that opinion. Time for Fallout 3: Part 2: The Good Parts.

The Sneaking Game

In Oblivion, I played a roguish character with a bow (and magic). In Fallout 3, I play a sneaky sniper. This largely speaks to my own interests and personality, but the point is that even though the game isn't explicitly about being sneaky, both of these games provided much more satisfying sneaking games than any game I've played that WAS explicitly about sneaking.

Why is that? Let's compare the sneaking experience in a couple different games. In Metal Gear Solid, you are presented with a linear level, with enemies as obstacles. You're supposed to sneak, and the game encourages this by making combat in which your enemy sees you punishing. Of course, since the level is linear and you must sneak, that means that playing through a level devolves into finding the correct path from point A to B that won't involve you getting seen.

In Assassin's Creed, you are also supposed to sneak, although combat against opponents that are aware of your presence is actually pretty easy, while sneaking involves going very slowly and doing nothing interesting (which would draw attention to you). Eventually, every player of Assassin's Creed reaches the limit of their patience with walking around trying to look like a scholar and begins charging guards.

What about Fallout 3? In Fallout 3 you're not "supposed" to sneak - a non-sneaky, heavy duty combat character is a perfectly valid build (I just tried one out for the first time the other day and it was pretty fun). However, sneaking does give you a definite advantage, in both combat and elsewhere. I mean, you get sneak attack criticals, but that's not really the important part, since you could instead invest those skill points from sneak into big guns, and I hear that tactical nuclear warheads also do a lot of damage. The important part is that when you sneak, you can find your opponent before they find you, and then you get to decide how the battle starts. Usually you'll choose to open combat by closing to a good firing range and then saying hello with 4 shots in VATS mode, but you could just as easily open by placing a mine or two conveniently in a path you intend to lure the enemy down, reverse-pick-pocketing a live grenade into your enemy's pocket, sneaking up and turning off a robot (assuming you're really good at science), searching for elements of the environment you can use to your advantage (like gas leaks, slaves you can free, existing traps, etc.), or just avoid the combat altogether. The point here is that sneaking is advantageous because it opens up new possibilities. In other words, sneaking complements the core gameplay philosophy of Bethesda, which is to give the player a high degree of freedom.

Outside of combat, sneaking allows you to get access to areas you're not supposed to be in and allows you to steal things. This might not sound like a big deal, but it means that sneaking around allows you to explore the various mini-narratives the fill the world (which I'll discuss below). This is what initially entranced me about Oblivion - breaking into NPCs houses and stealing their stuff gives you a reason to explore your environment, and a way to interact with it, which is what really brings that environment to life.

Mildly Turn-Based Combat

To avid role-players, one of the features of Fallout 3 that might stand out is that it's also a first person shooter. These have traditionally been antithetical genres: the FPS is all about hand-eye coordination while the RPG is all about resource harvesting and story. We do, however, have a couple precendents now (including one from the big name in American RPGs, Bioware), so what I find interesting is instead the fact that the game is, in fact, lying about being a first person shooter.

But, you object, the game is all first-person, and you shoot things, so how can it not be a first person shooter?! Like I said above, first person shooters are about hand-eye coordination, and Fallout 3 is not. Firstly, the effects of pointing a gun at any enemy and pulling the trigger vary dramatically based on your character's ability with a gun, but what's more significant here is that the dominant mode of combat is VATS mode. The way VATS mode works is that 1) Time pauses. 2) You select a series of attacks you want your character to make, which can be against different body parts of a single enemy or against multiple enemies. 3) Once you've spent your action points queuing up attacks, you accept and then watch your character attempt the various attacks. it just me or does this sound suspiciously like we're not playing a FPS shooter anymore? (hint: it's not just me)

Of course, you don't have to use VATS mode - you can aim manually and fire, although the effect and accuracy still depend on your character's skill. It's also true that after exiting VATS mode you have to wait for your AP to recharge before using it again, during which time you can manually aim, or run, hide, and otherwise stall until your AP is back. The point is, you can go through the entire game without ever taking a shot outside of VATS mode. This means that Fallout 3 gets to have the immersiveness of a first person shooter without requiring any extraordinary hand-eye coordination from the player, and it makes the game much more about what you want to do then about the player's reflexes.

Real Game Narrative

This is what I consider the meat of my argument for Fallout 3 being a good game - it presents stories to the player through gameplay, rather than having story occur between bits of gameplay. I'm not referring to the fact that you are always playing during story sequences, although that is true and valuable - you have dialogue, and events that occur while you're playing, but no cutscenes beyond the opening movie. What I'm referring to is the fact that there are stories in Fallout 3 that aren't part of the main story line (or any explicit storyline). For example:

I reload my pistol and give the area one more sweep with my eyes. All the raiders are down, so I holster my weapon and start to investigate my surroundings more thoroughly. I came here looking for food, but with all the years that have passed, it shouldn't surprise me that the raiders have eaten every can off the shelves, and turned the aisles into miniature fortifications. As I come around behind a desk, I find some stashed supplies. I suppose the raiders could have used this as a nice defensive position, if I hadn't slipped into the midsts and isolated each of them between the grocery aisles. There's an intercom here, and I'm tempted to say something silly into it, until I realize that any lingering raiders would be able to hear me, if there were any. I continue exploring until I find a locked door in the back of the place - here's where they keep their good stuff, I'm sure. Fortunately I've been keeping up on my computer hacking skills and there's a terminal nearby that unlocks the door. As soon as it's open I hear the intercom startle to life, "Ok, guys, we're back. Can someone open the back...wait a minute." Oh shit. I slide into the backroom and close the door I just managed to get open. Now what am I going to do? There are some nice supplies in this room, but I might not survive taking 5 or 6 more raiders at once. Then I notice a large tube in the room with a robot inside. The old grocery store security robot is still intact, apparently, and if I can get it running again...I may have a shot at this afterall.

This isn't elaboration - this is exactly what I was thinking as I was playing through this area. This also wasn't part of the main storyline, and though a quest did point me toward this grocery store, the only requirements to complete the quest were to "find some food." In other words, the quest was just an incentive to get me to explore - nothing dictated that I see things in a certain order, notice the details I did, or use the strategies I did to defeat the raiders: I was simply presented with an interesting environment to explore. Nonetheless, there was a story here, and it was because the environment had a sense of character to it.

This is what Fallout 3 does that's really interesting. This is where true game narrative takes form. It's not in the grandiose battles in DC, or in the moral choices your character makes, or in the story that unfolds about why your father left the vault. It's in the little moments that result from having a rich environment. It's when you kill a machine-gun toting super mutant, only to find that they had an unusually large collection of toy cars and teddy bears; or when you murder someone in their sleep and hear their lover's heartfelt stories about them after the fact; or when you explore a seemingly normal office building where every desk has ammunition for military grade weapons stashed in it, and eventually find a computer containing email correspondence along the lines of "OH GOD, THE FEDS ARE HERE." These stories are simply layered into the environment, and they make the world seem alive. When items feel like they were placed there by the characters, and not by the level designer, that's when exploring an environment becomes a story.

I'll take that over an hour long sequence of Solid Snake getting lectured to by a dying man any day of the week.

Final Note

In summary, Fallout 3 is chock-full of problems, great and small, but it's also probably the most interesting game I've played this year. The core gameplay is so fun and the environment so full of interesting stuff that I, for one, have no choice about liking the game. It also allows for a variety of play styles, and they result in very different experiences - if you made a strong heroic character and steamrolled through the main storyline, then you haven't played the same game I have.

One more thing: this obviously isn't an exhaustive list of good or bad qualities. These are just the aspects of the game that I decided to talk about.



So since I posted this, I've been checking sitemeter and apparently a LOT of people are getting here searching for tips on playing Fallout 3. Because I'm just such a nice guy, I've decided to add a couple.

First: How to sneak. It's actually pretty simple - you just crouch and you're in sneak mode. On the PS3, you do this by hitting L3 (which means push in on the left analog stick - you don't need to hold it, just press it to start or stop sneaking). While you're sneaking, you'll get an indicator telling you whether or not you've been noticed.

If you see [Hidden] it means no one sees you.
If you see [Detected] it means a friendly character sees you (so don't try stealing that abraxo cleaner).
If you see [Caution] it means a hostile character is aware you're there, but not sure where you are.
If you see [Danger] it means that a hostile character sees you (and is attacking you - good time to hit L2 and go into VATS mode).

To determine whether or not you're hidden, there are a couple factors that come into play. First, your sneak skill - get it pretty high quickly if you want to play stealth (that means at least 50). Second is visibility - if you're in a dark area and/or the enemy does not have line of sight to you, you're more likely not to be noticed. If you run, you are more likely to be noticed than if you walk or stand still, and if you shoot at an enemy (even if you miss), it will almost certainly give away your position. The keys to stealth playing are patience and the ability to gauge how close you can get without being seen (to maximize your chance of hitting with a sneak attack).

While sneaking, you can pickpocket someone by activating them (walk up behind them and hit X). In my opinion, though, pickpocketing isn't worthwhile in most cases, because it carries an inherent risk of getting caught, whereas stealing objects lying about is much less risky (as long as you're [Hidden] you're A-OK). If you have the Sandman perk, and you attempt to pickpocket a sleeping NPC, you will also have the option of killing them in their sleep, which is actually pretty effective (as long as no one else sees the act), because then you can take their stuff at your leisure...I mean, not like you would ever do something like that, being the model citizen that you are.

The second thing I'll cover is hacking computers. First things first - each time you bring up the computer hacking screen, it randomly generates a puzzle, which means you CANNOT go online to find the password for each terminal in the game. You just have to figure it out from scratch. Sorry.

That said, I can give you some tips for how to figure out the passwords. The basic mechanic here is that when you guess a word, you're told how many of the letters from that word were correct. Note, that means letters in the correct position, so if the password is "Ellipsis" and you guess "Epicfail," you'll see "2/8", meaning that 2 of the letters were correct (the initial E and the second-to-final letter, i). One thing to keep in mind is that only full words are eligible input - all of the #$% and such you see is just filler - ignore it and find the next full world.

So knowing this, a good strategy is to rule out as many choices as possible with each guess, by picking words with common elements. For example, if there are multiple words among your options ending in "-ing," then it's a good candidate to guess, because if the game replies that less than 3 characters were correct, then the password can't possibly end in "-ing", which rules out all of the other words ending in "-ing". So pick words with suffixes or prefixes in common with other options, such as "-ent," "-ed", "de-," "re-," or "con-". After you have some feedback from the system, you should only ever guess words that match that feedback, so check each word. I do this by imagining spelling out the word I'm guessing next to the word I guessed before, and seeing how many of the letters are the same (it should be exactly the same as the number the game told you were correct, or there's no point in guessing that word).

Aside from that, you just need luck (and to save before attempting the terminal, since it will permanently lock if you fail). Also, this might have just been a coincidence, but I noticed an unusual number of times that the correct answer was the second option. Worth keeping in mind.

I hope that's helpful, and I'll keep an eye out for any other questions people are implicitly asking by searching for them on Google...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fallout 3: Part 1

So I've been intending to make a post about Fallout 3 for a while, but I keep getting sidetracked by actually playing the game. That alone is probably sufficient to indicate that I'm enjoying it quite a bit, but what I find interesting about Bethesda's games is that while I thoroughly enjoy them, I also come away from them with a list of complaints long enough to form the basis of a doctoral thesis. I guess these are just two aspects of the same thing - obsession.

In any case, I'll start off with some of the complaints, both because I noticed them quickly and because I'd like to give some sense of credence to the good things I have to say later.

1. The Uncanny Valley, Uncanny Rolling Hills, and Occasional Uncanny Mesa

One of the things that I'm consistently surprised by is the widespread assumption that detailed graphics makes for good aesthetics. Fallout 3 is a fantastic example of "next gen" graphics producing awkward situations out of otherwise fine material.

The most clear cut example of this, in my opinion, comes in the form of humor that's hard to laugh at. The game has a certain over-the-top last-generation-fears-realized-in-an-unlikely-future setting, which is clear in everything from the vaul-tec mascot character, who has a smile on his face no matter what he's doing (and it's not always pretty) to the use of nuka-cola caps as currency. At the same time, the game can be creepy and atmospheric. This duality should be pretty clear to anyone who has seen the ads, which show cheerful propaganda fading away into the barren remains of DC, and I understand that the tension between the over-the-topness and the creeping sense of disturbing possiblities is intentional. The problem is that the things that actually provoke these sentiments in me are far too random and seemingly unintentional. It's hard for me to laugh at a situation when its rendered in such exquisite detail that I feel like I'm in the world, but at the same time it's hard for me to take combat situations perfectly seriously, no matter the context, because of the highly improbable amount of gore.

Speaking of gore, I find that the first result on a google image search is usually pretty telling - this is what I got for Fallout 3:

Wow, I didn't remember putting magic head-exploding bullets in my gun between the 15th and 16th shots I took at this guy...I mean, it's one thing when I shotgun a ghoul in the face at point blank range, but when I'm using a pistol at 30 yards, exploding heads are just a ridiculous outcome, especially since I just shot this same enemy in the head with the same weapon multiple times without seeing any such effects.

Note that my problem here isn't with the presence of gore - I'm ok with a game being intended for mature audiences with hardened stomachs. The problem is that the gore doesn't seem to have found any kind of balance or proper place for itself within the game. It doesn't make me reflect on how horrible gunfights are, add to the sense of realism, or serve as consistent comic relief to lighten the mood. Sometimes it makes sense, and it works, but just as often it feels out of place.

The uncanny valley is generally understood to be a fairly specific issue: human facial recognition is very good, so we notice when a face we're presented with approaches realism without actually being a realistic human face, and it bothers us. The basic principle behind it, though, applies much more widely - if you don't ask your audience to suspend their disbelief, they won't, and then they'll notice everything that's not quite right.

For example, the people and living spaces of cities are richly detailed, which on the one hand is great because it gives you more to explore and lets you look into people's lives. On the other hand, it makes you stop and wonder why there are apparently 30 residents of Underworld and only about 10 beds - oh right, because only a dozen of the residents are actual NPCs with names (and beds). For that matter, this is supposed to be THE city of ghouls, the one so great and successful that you can hardly find civilized ghouls living anywhere else...and it's got 30 residents? That doesn't really qualify as a city, much less a major melting pot for irradiated people from all walks of life. I mean, that's about how many raiders (or super mutants) live on an average DC block, but those areas aren't called cities.

By contrast, consider the typical toolbox in Fallout 3. I'm usually not surprised to find a paint gun, some psycho, and a couple units of scrap metal inside one. If you actually look at each of these items, however, you'll notice that a toolbox couldn't possibly hold all of them. This, unlike the small size of a city or the magic 16th exploding head bullet, will likely not be noticed by the player during the game. Why? Because the toolbox is presented to the player as an abstract entity - you can't actually open it up and see the contents of the toolbox - you get a dialog that informs you what is inside, which immediately triggers the player to suspend their disbelief (they don't mind doing so, all they want is to play the game), cue a resource management mini-game, and continue playing.

The lesson here? Abstraction is a powerful tool. Never forget that.

Before moving on, there's one other great piece of "realism" that I feel obliged to bring up. I'm a fan of headshots, so it's not uncommon for me to see the words "Raider's head is crippled," and then to see the same Raider in question pull out a baseball bat and come at me like a madman. I repeat, the game told me that his head was crippled. When I hear that, what I expect is that he's lying on the ground in the throes of death, when it actually just means that he has a minor combat disadvantage.

2. Meaningless Alignment

One of the things that seems to be noticeably worse in Fallout 3 than in Oblivion is the alignment system. The main problem is that it's too simplistic. Oblivion had fame and infamy, which implied an element of human fallacy - you could be evil without being infamous if you were subtle about it (or had the mask of the grey fox). In Fallout 3 there's just karma, and it goes up when you do something nice/noble/generous, and down when you do something mean/illegal/gross.

One problem with this is that it doesn't allow for any kind of substantive distinction between different "good" or "evil" acts. If I look at a computer terminal that I wasn't given permission to, I lose karma. If I kill a woman in her sleep, I lose karma. There's no difference. What's more, there's no limit to how low your karma can do for committing petty crimes, so after stealing hundreds and hundreds of boxes of abraxo cleaner, you'll be a Capitol Crimelord, and tales of you murdering and pillaging will be told on the radio, even if you've never killed anyone.

Speaking of the radio, while it at first seems cool that the game responds to your actions by having the radio report on how evil (or good) you are, it's really just bizarre. For one thing, what 3 Dog says about you on the radio has no relationship whatsoever to what he says to or about you in person. In fact, in a single radio broadcast, he called me an "evil bitch" and 90 seconds later said "so if you see the kid from vault 101, give her a pat on the back" - well which is it, 3 Dog? Do you love me or hate me?

The last thing that's just bizarre about alignment is that everyone, from 3 Dog to random children, know what your alignment is. If there's a "detect evil" spell out there no one ever told me about it, and I just have to guess whether or not the person I'm speaking to is trust worthy, but every single person in the capital wasteland just knows that I'm a bad person, even though they haven't seen me perform a single bad act and they don't behave any differently around me (usually) because of it.

Seriously, if I steal a nuka cola in the middle of nowhere, seen by no one, then I gain magic "evil karma" which can be detected by everyone and compels them to tell me I'm a bad person, but otherwise has no effect on their relationships with me (they'll still do business with me, give me quests, etc.). That's not consequences for my actions. That's just weird.

3. Navigation Nightmare

Megaton is hard to get around. That's what I thought before I made it into DC, and spent an hour trying to figure out how to progress toward that dot on the map until I realized that I was supposed to used the underground tunnels to reach it. Yay. That really made my game experience fun, having a marker on a map with no clear way to reach. Oh wait, no, it didn't.

Half the game takes place in a labyrinth that has no clear rules and filled to the brim with low-loot, high danger super mutants that punish you for making a wrong turn (which you do all the time). More generally, it seems that the purpose here is to control player movement within the city, in order to facilitate a scripted level flow as you move from one part of the story to the next. In other words, the difference between navigating the city and navigating the wastes exists in order to emphasize the difference between playing the main story and doing sidequests in the wastes. I for one find this distinction jarring enough as it is - I don't see how it's advantageous to remind me that all of the elements that make the game unique and interesting are reduced when I follow the main story.

Speaking of scripting, I was bothered by the "Behemoth" sequence early on in the story, in front of the GNR building. A wall is broken down and a giant monster appears, while one of the paladins screams to me "get the Fat Man off of that dead soldier while we hold the Behemoth off!" Of course, the Fat Man is a huge, gigantic weapon that fires nukes. I'm sure this would have been incredibly exciting to a player who used the Big Guns skill a lot, but to me, a sneaky character, it just seemed incredibly lame that the game is forcing me to fight in a way that is completely contrary to my character build, giving me a weapon that seems too valuable to throw away, but takes up 15% of my inventory space without seeing any further use, and trying to convince me that the line "It's a Behemoth!" is flavor and not cliche. What's worse, it's cliche from a different game, and seems like it's only in Fallout 3 because Gears of War/Halo is popular. Halo and Gears of War are both fun, mind you, but they aren't the game that I put into my PS3.

Well, I was planning on also getting to the good parts, but this post is already mildly epic, so I'll cut it off here and save the good part for next time...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not So Lively Afterall

I made passing reference in an earlier post to the fact that Google Lively (the virtual world from Google) wasn't usable, and elsewhere I've gone so far as to predict that it would straight-up bomb. Apparently I was right.

The problems with Google Lively are instructive: it drew a lot of attention, and even excitement in certain circles, but it simply wasn't usable. It was trying to sell itself as a "browser based" virtual world, meaning you could embed it in webpages. That sounds nice, I'm sure, but 1) it required a 10 MB download to work, 2) after the 10 MB download it took about 20 minutes to load a room (in my experience), and 3) it was a fully 3D world without any solid navigation controls. So if you require a huge download AND long load times for your app, it's not very effective as an embeddable widget, and if the user has to dedicate a huge amount of effort to moving their avatar across the room (much less around a corner, that was a nightmare), then it's not providing the kind of casual experience that users attracted to browser-based world were looking for in the first place.

In other words, this was an example of a world that tried to use features to compensate for lack of a driving vision or solid design of any kind. Did they even have designers on this project? I mean the menus are all enormous, the camera and navigation controls feel like they're from the early 90s when 3rd person 3D was a peculiarity at best, and chat all occured in bubbles that flew as far as possible from your avatar, with a thin line connecting them to the speaker. The point is that core usability cannot be an afterthought, but just about everything else they did include can be.

I feel a particularly inappropriate amount of schadenfreude when I see this graphic:
That's right: Google Lively was 70% hype and 30% loading screens.

-Silent Ellipsis

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


After the election, it's time for a political post! Everyone else is doing it...

So firstly, it's not at all surprising, but it's certainly heartening to see Obama elected. I'm not going to spend any time talking about the significance of a black president because you've read that fifteen times over - I just wanted to give him a nod before moving on.

Of course, more was decided than just the presidency. More than a third of the senate was up for election, and democrats expanded their majority in both houses of congress. I myself would have liked to see democrats get a filibuster-proof 60 senators, but I'm willing to concede that it might actually be just as well that they didn't (or seem certain not to at this point). Yes, I actually believe in pluralism and all that jazz, and bringing Republicans into the innovative "sane government" strategy is going to be very important to securing the future of American democracy.

But congress isn't really what I want to talk about, either. I want to talk about Proposition 8, the real downer of the evening. For those who don't know, Proposition 8 is a proposed amendment to the California constitution that would ban gay marriage. Even though San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in the country, much of inland California is conservative, and many liberals in California are also religious enough to vote yes on proposition 8 even while voting Obama into office (who officially opposes prop 8).

As I suggested above, I am a pluralist, and I fully support the right of people to hold whatever beliefs suit their fancy. However, in this country marriage carries with it legal as well as social benefits, which makes it fairly clear that this is a civil rights issue - a minority of the population is being denied legal rights by virtue of personal characteristics that have no impact on the rights of the majority.

That said, there actually is another reasonable side in the debate - it's possible to be for gay rights without being for gay marriage, and it's a not a separate-but-equal copout. Part of the problem is that marriage is a religious concept for many people. A marriage is a religious ceremony, and typically takes place in a church (or other religious structure). Then isn't it fair to say that denying gays the right to marriage is itself a right - the right to freedom of religion? I say sure, but that carries with it a cost, for if marriage is a religious issue, then it isn't the role of government to be dictating who can and can't marry in the first place.

So the obvious solution (well, obvious to me) is to get rid of marriage as a legal status altogether. All of the rights now associated with marriage would be instead associated with domestic partnerships (or whatever we want to call them), all current marriages between individuals are immediately converted to such partnerships (so married couples aren't affected at all), and marriages are purely understood to be religious affairs, meaning that any church is free to decide who it will or won't marry (and can even offer special marraiges or super marriages if they want - I really don't care). While we're at it, we won't just define a domestic partnership to include same-sex couples, but to include any group of people who are close enough to extend rights concerning themselves to the other members - so if a pair of close friends or siblings lived together, they could function as a family unit like a husband and wife can. After all, why should a sexual relationship between partners be a prerequisite for what amounts (when you remove the religious terminology) to a legal contract about sharing rights and resources?

Of course, at this point I've gone far enough to be considered radical, even though I maintain that this solution should please everyone. Religious individuals get to hold onto their religious freedom, churches GAIN religious freedom by not having their right to perform religious ceremonies restricted by the government, and currently unmarried family units gain equal legal rights. If everyone gets what they want, what's the problem?

The problem is that anyone claiming that "religious freedom" is their reason for wanting to ban gay marriage is lying. They don't want religious freedom. They want theocracy. They're not voting for prop 8 to defend themselves from anything - they're voting for prop 8 to make the lives of other citizens worse (as punishment for their devious behavior). This will seem obvious to many, but it's also important to point out (again and again), because words do make a difference. It's easier to argue that you're "pro-life" than to argue that you're for throwing women who have abortions in jail. It's easier to argue that we should teach the flaws in evolution than it is to argue that we should teach religion in science class. It's easier to argue that we should "protect marriage" than to argue that we should "punish heretics."

We need to take hold of the language if we want to take hold of the culture. Here's a short list of terms we should adopt:

Liberal > Progressive
Conservative > Regressive
Global Warming > Global Climate Change
Intelligent Design > Creationism
Pro-life > Anti-choice
Same-sex Marriage > The Rights of Families

-Silent Ellipsis

P.S. To everyone who reads this for my posts on video games, consider posts like this "bonus posts," or if you prefer, "sidequests."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Waving Hands

I was recently exposed to Spellcaster, or "Waving Hands," and was immediately excited to try it out. The logistics prevented me from trying it for a while, until I found a site that hosts automated sessions between players at RavenBlack Games (I'm Ellipsis on there, so if anyone wants to create an account and send me a challenge, feel free). Now that I've gotten to actually play the game (a dozen or so times) I can say that my excitement was justified.

Spellcaster is a game about dueling wizards. Nothing terribly innovative there, seeing as how an entire gaming medium (the collectible card game) was spawned by a game with the same premise. The innovative part is how you cast spells - by making gestures with your two hands (usually abbreviated as letters you can write down in sequence), combinations of which create spells. Now, this is conceptually very cool, but that's not what makes Spellcaster a good game. It's the fact that the gameplay is very simple (just consists of picking a gesture to make with each hand each turn), but very strategically deep. We can be a bit more specific, though, in talking about what makes the game good:

1) Micro-goals with feedback: Each individual spell is made up of several coordinated actions and could be counterspelled or otherwise interrupted by an opponent. As a result, every individual spell that you complete gives you a sense of accomplishment (proportional to the difficulty of completing the spell).

2) Engagement Level: The game allows you to control how much time you invest in it. There is no time limit between turns, so you can take as long as you want to make a decision. You can check on the progress of the game every once in a while (or just get an email reminder when it's your turn) and play at work. Alternatively, you can spend time strategizing, trying to figure out your opponent's plans, etc, and this time pays off. The ability of the player to control how they play can be very valuable.

3) Balance: Sure, the big spells are flashy and do a lot of damage, but one interruption from your opponent spoils the effort you put into preparing that spell. Meanwhile, the minor enchantments only affect your opponent for one turn, but they're easy to pull off and can disrupt his rhythm. What particularly pleases me about the balance is that even though there are different play styles, every spell is useful to every player - sometimes, a situation just calls for "remove enchantment" or for "anti-spell" and this is just as true for a defensive player as for a fan of the big, flashy spells.

4) Dynamic: You will never succeed at this game by picking a "dominant" strategy and going through the motions. The game relies very strongly on predicting what your opponent is going to do (so you can counter their attacks and make sure they're unable to defend themselves from yours), and the result is that play is very fluid and often unpredictable (your opponent is working very hard to make sure it's upredictable!).

5) Come Backs: The game does not provide any means for the winning player to secure and easily hold onto his lead. If one player has 5 monsters out and is invisible and immune to fire, cold, and physical attacks, all it takes it one dispel magic to level the playing field. Similarly, even if you hit your opponent with a strong spell, they might have something up their sleeve that they've been planning for a while that will take away your advantage. The point is that I've had many games where I was clearly ahead and ended up losing, and many in which I was clearly behind and still pulled out a victory.

This post, of course, isn't just an extended advertisement for the game - these basic elements that make the game compelling are elements that should be included in any game that strives to be strategic, because they are the elements that create a rich play experience. To balance out the post a bit, I can quickly point out the major problem with the game: steep learning curve. The only people who play this game are those who committed themselves to learning how to play it, and who are willing to repeatedly look over the 40+ entry spell-list trying to figure out what kind of options they and their opponents have, and what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. If a game had this kind of strategic depth and was able to lead players in and teach them the skills they needed in a more incremental way, it would be the stuff of greatness.

-Silent Ellipsis

Friday, October 17, 2008

Little Late Planet

For those who haven't heard, the much-anticipated Little Big Planet is being delayed. What could cause Sony to delay the release of a title they expect to get so much out of? Apparently one of the background music tracks contained two lines from the Qur'an, and the mixing of music and lines from the Qur'an is offensive to some Muslims.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that this is an obvious or simple situation; offense for no reason is unconscionable, and we should respect all people whatever their beliefs. That said, I think Sony has terribly overreacted. A couple considerations.

1) The people that brought this to Sony's attention had asked for a patch to be released that would remove the offensive track. Sony actually went beyond this request and recalled all of the units that they had already shipped.

2) A statement along the lines of "we didn't mean to offend anyone," along with an optional patch to remove the track, would probably have been sufficient to appease Muslim players without upsetting the game's core audience.

3) This kind of response probably wouldn't have happened if the game had offended a similarly-sized contingent of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, or the like. I'll admit that I don't actually know how big the conservative Muslim LBP player contingent is, but the response isn't just for them - it comes from a general fear of upsetting Muslims. There's no doubt that incidents such as the Mohammed comic controversy are informing this decision.

4) I think it's relevant that the music was written by a Muslim artist, and wasn't at all demeaning to Muslims. This kind of work actually has a lot of positive work to do for the Muslim community - the possibility for art and music by Muslims, and even words from the Qur'an, to enter the mainstream American cultural consciousness. As long as vague fears keep this kind of expression at bay, Muslims will find it that much harder to stop being seen as the archetypal "other" in the minds of many Americans.

Basically, the situation makes me sad.

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, October 13, 2008

3 Kinds of Fun

Wow, a lot of blogposts in the last week. I guess I've just been in the right mood for it...

Anyway, Raph Koster just made a post defending the idea that fun comes from learning new skills. This reminded me that I've been contemplating the issue a bit recently, and have some ideas to toss into the discussion. I'll begin by saying that I agree with the last point in Koster's post - the theories that have been presented don't necessarily conflict with each other. If you had a direct argument going on between an advocate of 8 kinds of fun and the learning theory of fun, I would say that the two camps are talking past each other.

First, I'll say something about "8 kinds of fun." They are sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, and submission. My immediate reaction the very first time was "aren't some of these more important to games than others?" At the time I thought that some seemed more "game-like," by which I meant that they were more particular to games. In particular, "sensation" doesn't seem very game-like, because books and movies can offer spectacles at least as well as games can, and clearly "narrative" is the kind of fun where literature is king. It's true that the narrative and the presentation of games can be important though, so this left me confused for some time.

I think I understand now the source of that confusion: the above list, though a good list, is mis-titled. They aren't "kinds" of fun...they're aspects of fun, or components. That is, they are the various parts that make up a fun experiences. While someone might look for games that have good stories, they're probably not playing the game strictly for the story (again, if all they wanted was to see a good story, they would just read a book). It may be true that they want to see a good story in the game, but that's different from just wanting to see a good story - the game setting changes the meaning of the desire. What I'm getting at generally is that the items on the list above can all greatly contribute to the funness of a game, but they just don't seem core enough to the game experience to properly be called "kinds" of fun. It seems to me like we skipped a step when we call them such.

The fun-as-learning approach is at the opposite extreme - it's so fundamental that it becomes limited in how much in can tell us. It's true, given a sufficiently broad definition of "learning," but it's far from being the complete story about what makes games fun. If we recognize that the 8 kinds of fun are really components of fun, and then combine it with the fun-as-learning approach we get a much better picture of the whole process - these elements combine in different ways in order to create interesting learning environments which we call games.

I still think we're missing an intermediary, however, which is the real "kinds" of fun. Like I said, I think that only something very core to the gameplaying experience can count as a kind of fun. I doubt I'll get this right on my first pass, but I have in mind 3 different core types of experience, all of which are built out of the 8 components of fun and all of which entail some kind of learning. What I currently understand to be the 3 kinds of fun are: creation, submission, and competition. These are actually each in the list of 8 components, so if you prefer, I'm just making the list more concise by eliminating redundancy.

If we recognize that games are sets of rules, then the relationship between these kinds of fun should be fairly intuitive: creative gameplay comes from control of the rules, submissive gameplay from exploring the space within those rules, and competitive gameplay from comparing performance within the rules. In reality, the boundary lines aren't so clear, and a game can have appeal as providing more than one kind of fun, but I think these can be separated out as three core kinds of gameplay. I'll discuss them in the opposite order I introduced them in:

Competitive gameplay is the kind that we're most familiar with, and is easy to understand. In its purest form, competitive play depends on the barest set of rules, which exist only to establish a sense of fairness between the competitors. In fact, the rules here are defining what is fair, and by choosing what is and isn't allowed the rulemaker is deciding what kind of player will fare best in the game, but at the least the rules should assure the players that they each have a fair shot of proving their superiority in the game. Probably the purest example of competitive games are simple feats of physical ability: races, weight-lifting contests, and the like. In these contests, the rules are not very interesting, so the interest is entirely about the competitors, their training, and what they're able to achieve. In digital games, competitive behavior emerges in just about anything that is multiplayer, but it can also arise in single-player games if the player believes that they and the computer are in a "fair" contest. This is largely illusory, since computers can be programmed to perform better or worse at a task, but it's interesting that it's nonetheless relevant to the player when they're in a competitive gameplay mode - they become angry when they perceive the computer "cheating."

Submissive gameplay is a kind of gameplay we've seen grow substantially since the advent of digital games, but exists in plenty of non-digital examples. Submissive gameplay involves accepting the rules of the game as law, and then exploring the space of possibilities left within those restrictions. This is common in digital single-player games, where the player accepts the rules of the world, the limits of their controller, etc., as essential parts of the game. He makes a silent pact with the designer, that in exchange for accepting these limitations, he will be compensated by a rewarding game experience. This happens in person in the case of tabletop games, where the players submit to the authority of the gamemaster (I joke to the GM of my most recent campaign that his title implies that the players are "slaves", but in retrospect, it's not a joke: playing a table-top game IS play-as-submission). The purest incarnation of submissive play, however, is puzzles. In a puzzle you have a set objective, and often only one solution, but if the path leading to that solution is interesting, then players will submit to spend their time trying to do exactly what the designer wants, and fun may happen as a result.

Finally, there is creative gameplay. The most obvious example is the game designer's career - really it's just extended gameplay that happens to produce something people will pay for. Another clear example is the role of the gamemaster in a table top game, as mentioned above. Sure, the gamemaster generally abides by the rules set out in the rulebook for whatever game he is running, but he is free to invent "house rules," and expected to flesh out the environment, decide what kind of encounters the players can reasonably be expected to overcome, etc. In short, the experience of being a gamemaster is fundamentally different from the experience of being a table top RPG player. Your feedback doesn't come in the form of experience and treasure, but in the reaction of the players to your game - when they have fun, you feel accomplished.

I may have missed a fundamentally different kind of gameplay, but every example game I can think of makes use of these three varieties of gameplay. An RTS game has submissive play and competitive play (it's a good example of a genre in which players are wary of the computer "cheating"), Oblivion has submissive and creative gameplay, etc. Also note that each kind of gameplay can appear in non-obvious places. If you are given a tool within a game that allows you to control an aspect of the environment, and it's not designed to be used only for one specific purpose, you are experiencing creative play - by altering the environment, you're getting to test out different rules to see what kind of effects they have.

There's plenty more to say on the subject, but this post is too long as it is. Let me know if you can think of a core kind of gameplay that is not one of these three.

-Silent Ellipsis

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mega Man 9

I recently finished Mega Man 9, and overall the game was fantastic. It also brings me back to the issue of difficulty in games. Mega Man 9 is an extremely difficult game, but in general I felt less frustrated playing it than I have playing many less challenging games, and I'm going to consider here why. First, as a disclaimer, I recognize that I'm the kind of player who enjoys serious challenges, and that not everyone will - players who don't like to die more than a couple times on the same level will not enjoy Mega Man 9. That said, for those players who are looking for a challenge, Mega Man 9 does it right.

The hard part of balancing difficulty is figuring out the difference between a challenge and a frustration. I'll illustrate with a couple examples. It's a challenge when you're handed a portal gun, and you see that you're supposed to use it to get to the other side of a giant pit, but need to figure out how; it's a frustration when your high-level wizard is forced to crawl through a dungeon without being able to cast any spells, and risks getting killed by the kind of creature that they could normally off with one fireball (I'm looking at you, Neverwinter Nights). If you play a lot of games, then you've likely seen countless examples of both (and probably examples of both in the same game on many occasions), but it's hard to quantify the difference between a challenge that is fun and one that makes you want to throw your controller across the room. So let's attempt to quantify the difference.

The first thing we need to ask is, "what makes games fun to begin with?" Of course, this isn't an easy question to answer, and a many different ones have been composed (in some cases by the same person). I tend to agree with Danc over at Lost Garden, though, that learning is, if not the only source of fun, at least the source of fun most core the game playing experience. So why do players enjoy games that are challenging? Because if you've played many games, you've probably gotten pretty good at them, and if the game you're playing only includes elements you've already mastered, there's nothing for you to learn. If you're not learning anything new, then playing the game is just repitition (I'm looking at you, xp grinding).

So the issue is that in order to be fun, a challenge has to require you to master a new skill, but if the skill is completely unrelated to what you've been doing before, or just too much more advanced, then the player will become frustrated and stop playing. What's worse, if the "challenge" manages to decrease the odds of victory without actually introducing any new elements to learn, then frustration is the only thing it can achieve. This doesn't mean, however, that a challenge always has to come in the form of a completely revolutionary game mechanic - the truth is that even a small change (upping an enemy's hit points, or preventing them from staggering when hit) can actually make a substantial difference to the way you play the game, and thus provide a fun challenge, but this depends on how it's handled.

So enough with the generalizations, this post is about Mega Man 9. When you start playing the game, you will likely see its gameplay as "unforgiving." If you make a single misstep and fall into a pit, or land a spike (which are not in short supply), you instantly die, and are sent back to the last checkpoint. What's more, there are only 2 checkpoints in each level - one right in the middle (usually before some particularly challenging platforming) and one right before the boss, AND once you run out your lives, you have to restart the level even if you had made it to a checkpoint. What's more, the game doesn't try to make it easy for you to avoid these dangers - it's constantly throwing obstacles and tricks at you that force you to fall to your death. So even if you get past the difficult jumps, you don't get to save your progress? That doesn't sound very fun.

After you play for a while, however, you realize why this system works: reaching checkpoints isn't the primary form of progress you make in the game - learning how to traverse the level is. That is, most of the challenges in Mega Man 9, once they have been overcome, are much easier to complete a second time. This is because your victory or defeat is almost never the result of chance - when you die, it's because you made a mistake, and when you succeed, it's because you've mastered the challenge.

There are also a couple of structural elements that support this gameplay. First, the levels are actually all pretty short - the density of challenges means that it takes a long time to get through on your first attempt, but once you've mastered the level, and go back again, you realize that actual space of the level is pretty small, and you can traverse it very quickly if you know what to do. This means that saving your progress at checkpoints isn't nearly as important as it would be if getting back to that point took an extended period of time. To illustrate this principle, note that it took me 5-6 hours to beat the game, but record times are posted online, and the last time I checked, the best time in which someone had beaten the entire game was just over 24 minutes. I guarantee you that they weren't using cheats and tricks, either - that's just about how long it takes you to go through all the levels if you never have to pause and attempt something multiple times.

There's another structural element that's just as important in balancing the difficulty - you get to choose the order in which you complete the levels. After the opening story, you're taken to a stage select screen where you see all 8 master robots, and by selecting one, you're taken to their stage. There is no first stage and eighth stage - they are all balanced, but you will likely find some of the challenges easier to complete than others. If a stage is too hard for you, you can leave and try another one. Not only do you have control over the order in which you face the challenges, but as you complete challenges, you gain new abilities, which makes it easier to overcome the stages that gave you trouble in the beginning. By arranging the levels in this way, the game has effectively built in automatic difficulty balancing. Rather than having to perfectly execute everything on your first attempt, you're free to explore the various levels (mastering the basics as you do), until you find one that you think you can complete, and as you begin completing levels, you're getting stronger (and more skilled), and gradually making progress toward overall completion, not just in terms of checkpoints passed, but in terms of gathering the resources you need to overcome whichever challenges pose the most difficulty to you.

The total effect of this design is that you feel like you're constantly improving and constantly making progress even when you fail out of a level and lose your checkpoints. Combine this with the fact that many of the challenges are creative, engaging, and amusing, and you have a recipe for a great game experience. Even though the levels try to "trick" you into falling into pits and onto spikes, the game is straightforward about it - it communicates, not through text, but through visual cues and samples of gameplay elements, that it's going to try and trick you in the next room, so keep an eye out for it.

Not every game needs to be as hard as Mega Man 9, and this certainly isn't the only way to structure a game in order to be challenging and fun, but it serves as a great example of a game that uses well-crafted design to deliver to their target audience (crazy oldschool gamers) exactly what they're looking for.

Besides, who can resist a game with a boss named "Galaxy Man"?

-Silent Ellipsis

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Legitimate Outlaws

I was reading an article by Ernest Adams about “Implementing God”* to punish griefers (or player-killers, as he called them). It reminded me that griefers, like many other emergent features of MMORPGs, are generally thought of as an inevitable but strictly negative part of the game that can only be handled through liberal use of the ban-hammer. Also on this list are gold farmers, players who use macros, and chat spammers. The MMO team simply sighs and assumes that it’s only recourse is to be reactive, trying to find and eliminate all such annoyances.

It seems to me that developers who take this approach (and that’s about everyone right now) missed something – that the real value of an MMO is the emergent features that come through player interaction. There’s a reason that people are spawn-camping, chat spamming, and using macros. The reason is very simple: the player wants something that the game isn’t providing, and so using “illegitimate” means to try and get it.

A post that tackles all these issues at once would be epic in proportions, so I’m going to stick to just one of these topics for now: outlaws. I find it interesting (or, if you prefer, appalling) that although “rogue”-like classes exist in a variety of MMORPGs, they don’t get to do many roguish things. Take as a particularly sad example the assassin class in Guild Wars: Factions. What does an assassin do in this game? They wield two-daggers…and they charge at monsters and hit them a lot. Really, the assassin is just a different flavor of melee-fighter, who is defined by wielding two daggers instead of one sword. How exciting.

Other games may do a better job of making rogues distinctive, but they still don’t provide any chance for a rogue to have non-combat gameplay, and they certainly don’t have any room for rogue role-playing. In theory, a rogue is an outlaw, someone who lives outside the normally bounds of behavior for his society. Sometimes that’s what a player wants – not to be a noble hero but to defy the arbitrary rules that confine him and rebel against the society he’s in. Unfortunately, most games don’t really have much of a society to speak of, so the only thing for the player to rebel against is the game itself. That is, griefing is the only outlet available for someone who is bored of being a cookie-cutter anonymous hero. Simply declaring that griefers are immature, even if true, ignores the fact that the game is failing to provide them with a “legitimate” experience that engages them. In other words, the game is demanding that the player behave according to an arbitrary norm, and many times the experience gotten by adhering to that norm really is boring.

The problem is that this isn't a "legitimate" outlet. The system doesn't support or recognize outlaw activities, even though the actions are permitted by the mechanics. The griefer will get a brief feeling of empowerment the first time they pick on another PC, but won't be satisfied, and in their desperation to get that rush again will resort to crueler and crueler behavior. Players may form vigilante groups to counter-grief, and it's possible that the player could be banned, but there is no immediate reaction from the system when you break the law. Ultimately, actions on all sides are emotionally heated and everyone involved just ends up being frustrated.

So what's the solution? Formalize their outlaw status. Provide in-game mechanisms for them to act outside the "law" while still playing within the greater game system, and what was previously a frustration becomes flavor instead. You can give the lawbreaker an "outlaw" status, restrict from them certain rights of proper citizens (they can't freely come and go in cities, for example), and make them fair game for anyone with the "police" profession (and if they've violated enough laws, fair game for anyone to take down). You might give them some benefits in return (like access to outlaw society, if it exists), but you don't need to, because recognition is their reward, and it's all they wanted really wanted to begin with. Some hardcore players will covet the right to be called infamous, because that status will actually mean something in a system that makes being outlaw difficult, but possible and a legitimate choice of play style. While the outlaws feel more satisfied, the vigilantes also receive a recognized status, and get the sense that they're not just righting individual wrongs, but protecting society as a whole. The entire psychological outlook on law breaking changes, and quite possibly for the better.

Of course, in order for this to work properly, there needs to be a society that outlaws can meaningfully be outside of (since that's what it means to be an outlaw). Creating a genuine sense of a complex in-game society is a topic far larger than the one I set out to discuss in this post, but having formal outlaws is one of the things that helps to shape it - for it implies laws, which are real and meaningful.

Perhaps later I'll talk about how I think similar ideas apply to the other "inevitable but annoying" features of MMORPGs.

-Silent Ellipsis

*Yes, I know it's pretty old, but the same ideas are still prevalent. Just look at how people at Mythic brag about banning gold-sellers. It's the exact same mentality.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Google's doing something pretty cool for its 10th birthday: it's made the index from 2001 available as an alternate search function. Not only does this let you see the big, blocky logo of yesteryear, but your search results will actually display the results you would have gotten in 2001.

In particular, I was very amused when I performed a search for "wikipedia." This is what I got. That's right, 681 results. This was literally back when wikipedia was new. I'm particularly amused by the quote, "Who knows where this will go?" on one of the results.

For comparison, this is what you get if you search for "wikipedia" today. With 284,000,000 results, I think it's safe to say that wikipedia's profile on the internet has raised over the last 7 years.

2001 was a more innocent time. A quick search for "September 11" came up with a mere 8 million results, none of which had to do with terrorism...

What kind of interesting things have you found in Google 2001?

-Silent Ellipsis

*Edit* I hadn't at first noticed that there are links to look at archived versions of webpages! Here is wikipedia's page in 2001.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Almost Greatness

I've noticed a string of games recently that began with ambitious or innovative ideas and combined them with high production values. This seems like a fairly straightforward recipe for a great game, but each of these games has fallen victim to major design flaws that have kept it from achieving its potential. These "almost great" games are at once somewhat saddening, since they fail to live up to the gameplay they promised, and a little inspiring in that they show what kind of impact design decisions have (and thus how important designers are). None of them are "bad" games, but they began with ideas of such scope that you can't help feel that something important went wrong in order for them to end up as merely "good."

In particular, there are three games I want to consider here, for a brief time each (this doesn't constitute a full review of each by any means - I'm focusing on what's relevant to this conversation). They are, in chronological order: Supreme Commander, Assassin's Creed, and Spore.

Supreme Commander

First of all, that's a pretty dramatic title. You'd probably expect that a game with the title "Supreme Commander" is on a mission to be the ultimate game of its chosen genre (RTS), and you'd be right. Chris Taylor decried all RTS games that had been made before as "really being economy games," and planned to revolutionize the genre by changing the entire scale of RTS. Supreme Commander did this by literally increasing map size - the largest maps are 80x80 kilometers, a scale at which crossing the map can be, in itself, an accomplishment. This was combined with some really great high-level controls, such as the ferry system - you could tell a factory to produce 100 assault bots, and send them to a ferry point as they were produced, so that they could be picked up by a transport ship and moved to a deployment station, all automated once you'd set it up. It also had strategic zoom - a feature so compelling that after I'd experienced it I was shocked when I tried to go back and play other RTS games that didn't include it.

So far so good. What happens, however, when you actually sit down to play it? First, there's the technical problem: the game requires so much processor power that if you try to play on the largest maps, the game will lag to the point of never ending. As a result, almost all play took place on the smallest maps, which favored rushing strategies, and more or less defeated the purpose of having a huge scale of combat. This was a major problem, but since it was a technical problem it's not the one I'm interested in. I'm interested in what the gameplay looks like when the game is played the way it's "meant" to be played: on a largish map.

On a largish map, it's true that transporting your soldiers across the map is difficult, and this, at least at first, leads you to build forward bases and set up elaborate ferry systems to move your troops around the map. I say at first because it wasn't long before I realized that there was another solution: high-tech weapons with obscene range. Tech3 (and in the case of the UEF Tech4) artillery, along with "strategic missiles" are capable of hitting the enemy from the opposite end of the map even on a 40x40 kilometer map. If you're playing Cybrans, then you have another option - you can build Soul Rippers, which are flying fortresses of death and destruction that can cross the map easily and have enough health and firepower to take on the enemy army without any ground support at all. These are all very cool units, but they're also so convenient, compared to building and transporting a ground army, that they remove any incentive to play the game the way the makers originally intended.

That's not the largest problem, however. The largest problem is that despite the existence of resources on the map to be harvested, the most efficient way to build up an economy is to get to the third tech level and then build power plants and fabricators that can produce resources no matter where you build them. Combine this with the fact that there's no limit to the number of these structures you can build and you realize the kind of advantage gathered by a player who spends all of his time building up his economy. What's more, automated base defenses are so effective that a player can hold off an entire army of enemy troops without every building a single soldier of their own - in fact, when I play, I usually don't even build a land factory, since you can create engineers from an air factory. What do we have here? We have a game where economy is king, and all of that sophisticated transportation and territory-acquisition strategy falls by the wayside - all you need to do is turtle. Build base defenses, build up your economy, and then build a super advanced super weapon that makes you win.

The ultimate result of which is that Supreme Commander didn't revolutionize the RTS genre like it intended to. It didn't change the "economy game" paradigm - instead it is the single most economy-focused RTS game ever made. It seems that a couple of these points were noticed by the designers, given the changes they made in the expansion, Forged Alliance, but from my experience, they didn't go far enough in changing the fundamental elements that prevented the kind of strategic play they were looking to create.

Assassin's Creed

I notice that the section on Supreme Commander is very long. Due to time limitations and the desire not to repeat myself too many times, I'll try to be much more brief in my discussion of the next two games. Assassin's Creed is another game that was looking to revolutionize a genre, but this time, the genre in question wasn't RTS games, but stealth games.

Assassin's Creed makes use of something that was utterly absent from all stealth games before it: social stealth. That is, in a game like Thief or Metal Gear Solid, the way you sneak is by crouching in the shadows and waiting until you victim turns his back on you. In Assassin's Creed the way you sneak is by walking around in broad daylight - trying to look as much as possible like a normal citizen. It's fair to say that Altair is following the advice of Asimov in Foundation, "It pays to be obvious, especially when you have a reputation for being subtle." Assassin's Creed also allows you an unprecedented amount of physical freedom, allowing you to climb on just about anything and everything, leaping from rooftop to rooftop feeling like a badass.

This was all great, but in a demo of the game made some time before its release, the presenter said "In Assassin's Creed, you can't take seven hits to the head, or even one, and keep fighting." They were going to have a realistic fighting system, where one false move could mean death. Well, that didn't happen. In fact, the opposite happened - not only can you take seven hits to the head and continue fighting, but as you continue fighting, your health (or "synchronization") will gradually regenerate, meaning that you can continue fighting indefinitely, even if you are making mistakes and getting hit. I happen to know a couple of people who did exactly that: skip the stealth entirely and just kill every single guard in the entire city. Now, I'm usually one for not restricting players to a single style of play, but the game is supposed to revolve around stealth, and to be honest, the combat is both a little shallow and very easy. Once you get the hang of counters, you can take an army of literally any size and win without breaking a sweat.

The problems didn't quite end there, however. The missions were all a little too repetitive, and several of the important features didn't seem quite believable enough (really, I only ever hide in rooftop gardens - why don't guards ever think to look in them?). What's more, playing the game "properly," that is by using social stealth left and right, is just too hard, slow, and inconvenient for the player, compared to hacking-and-slashing. Altogether, the result is that Assassin's Creed was pretty fun, and featured some awesome climbing, but failed to revolutionize the stealth genre.


Our most recent example is the highly-anticipated Spore. By highly anticipated I mean that when a demo video was released a couple years ago showing the kind of gameplay Spore would have, people thought this had the potential to be the most groundbreaking game of the decade. The scope was unprecedented: you begin as a single-celled organism, become a sea animal, move onto land, develop sentience, create a civilization, and eventually become a space faring race wandering the galaxy. It was going to be the ultimate sandbox, for once you’d mastered the creation tools every step of the way, you would have access to all of them during the space stage, and could create any kind of world you wanted.

The ambitions of Spore are highly praise-worthy. Unfortunately, once again, the game, though fun, fails to deliver what it intended. There are two fundamental problems with Spore. The first is that the game can’t decide if it’s supposed to be a sandbox or a goal-oriented game. If it’s a sandbox game, then there shouldn’t be any restrictions as you progress (such as the inability to edit your creature after the creature stage), and there shouldn’t be any gameplay features that force you to spend your time doing a particular thing (you get hungry in the creature stage, and so can’t ever stop hunting, or you get constantly attacked and have to spend your time defending yourself). In a sandbox game, challenges like combat should be challenges that the player can attempt when they want to and ignore when they want to. If, however, the game is really goal-oriented, then the decisions you make and the things you achieve should be more significant – as it turns out, whether I have on pair of wings or eight pairs has no gameplay effect, that I can easily make a creature that effectively dabbles in everything instead of having to choose, and no matter how many body parts I gather, as soon as I’ve acquired enough DNA to progress to the tribal stage, then I effectively lose my progress, because beginning a new “stage” is more like starting to play an entirely different game than it is like continuing the same game.

Interestingly, the second fundamental problem is a problem whether the game is sandbox or goal-oriented: the game stages are too disconnected. Not only is the gameplay different, but your choices and achievements don’t have much impact. I can gather every body part in the cell stage and hunt and kill every species I run across, or I can just gather the food that happens to be floating around, and either way, as soon as I get to the creature stage my body parts are all obsolete, and I’m starting a different kind of game. Similarly, if the game is a sandbox, you should feel free to go between the various modes, and play as a creature for a bit, and then switch to a space-faring race, and then switch to a single-celled organism. Currently, not only are you stuck with the creature you have when you progress past the creature stage, but you have a preset amount of time playing in each stage. That is, in theory you can play the creature stage indefinitely, but you aren’t accomplishing anything (since what you do has no effect on future stages), there are no more large rewards left to work for, and the game at that stage becomes much more challenging, eventually becoming too hard to be much fun for someone looking for a sandbox experience. Based on the greater design concepts, the lower-level design requires that the developers decide how long the player will spend in each stage, and inevitably you can’t pick lengths that will satisfy everyone (or even fully satisfy one person, since they’ll likely want to spend more time in the stages they like and less in the stages they don’t).

The gameplay changes present a problem of their own, however. One issue is that when you effectively are incorporating multiple game genres into one game, each genre’s gameplay is going to feel a bit shallow. What’s worse is that the player feels like the time they spend mastering each gameplay style is a waste, because they don't apply the skills they learned in future stages. The only exception to this rule is in the creation tools - as you master one tool, you feel more confident approaching the next creation tool. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there seems to be a general consensus that the creation tools are the most fun part of the game.


There is a trend running through these games. They begin with innovative concepts, but it seems that the rest of the design process revolves around mitigating the effect of these ideas, and trying to make the game more like other games of the genre, likely in the name of accessibility. RTS gamers are used to economy-based strategy, so Supreme Commander's revolutionary beginnings tend in that direction until it ceases to be revolutionary; players of 3D action games are used to HP and being able to hack away at guards, and Assassin's Creed heads in that direction until the creative stealth elements become optional; players like being given some kind of direction, and so Spore gradually moved away from being a sandbox game until it became a pseudo-goal-oriented game.

It seems to me that the same piece of advice can be applied to all of these games (and many others that I don't have time to discuss here): if you have a great idea, run with it. The remainder of the design process should be spent trying to figure out how to support and emphasize the good idea, rather than how to restrict it or make it seem less original. It's not like Supreme Commander gets to be very approachable and intuitive as a result of being so economy-driven; the learning curve is still very steep. Similarly, players of Spore don't get a deep, goal-oriented experience; it feels a little wonky, instead. If you have a really innovative concept that leads to new kinds of play, players will appreciate it, even if it takes them a little longer to get the hang of it - you want them to be willing to put in that time to get a truly original and compelling experience, rather than taunting them with the potential of a new experience, only to drop them in a game that feel suspiciously like many games they've already played.

-Silent Ellipsis

P.S. Wow, this whole post ended up being a bit more epic than expected.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Business "Solutions"

I was going to make a serious post, but 1) I don't have much time before I have to go, and 2) I can't get this out of my head, so here goes.

Business lingo. It makes me want to simultaneously laugh and facepalm (see Exhibit A) every time I hear it (or see it). From my experience, business lingo is an elaborate exercise in trying to make your product and your activities sound more important than they really are. I guess it's a good thing that I'm not a venture capitalist, because I would be put off of investing in anything that has a transparently bull-shitty self-description, and just about everything does.

Exhibit A

In particular, business lingo makes excessive use of the term "solution." In the context of a business-lingo description, the word "solution" means, roughly, "our product does something." In other words, it doesn't mean anything at all. If, however, you make sure to include it in the description of your product, it's sure to sound more professional, and professionals will wonder why they haven't found a problem to apply it to yet.

For example, if I were trying to sell you on the idea that Gaia Online was a product that you should invest in, I would describe it using the following language: "Gaia Online is a highly integrated network-based virtual property acquisition solution for the pre-pubescent demographic." Wow, Gaia sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it?

Now if I were trying to convince you NOT to invest in it, I would describe it like so: "Gaia is a site where 10-year-olds go to pretend that they own things." Both descriptions are about equally accurate and descriptive.

And this is why I could never be in marketing. I would always be tempted to give the latter description, and that isn't likely to go over well. I only wish business and video games had nothing to do with each other...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Massively Multiplayer Illusion

My complement convinced me to try out Granado Espada recently, and one of the things I noticed while playing was that occasionally another player would walk by. Now, this might seem like a rather silly thing to "notice" since I was playing an MMO, but that's just my point - it struck me that a substantial part of my game experience DIDN'T involve interacting with other people, and even when they popped into view, they usually went on toward whatever monster spawn point they were heading to without stopping to say hello. It was funny, I thought, that I was playing an MMORPG and yet after a full hour of play had only spoken and interacted with NPCs and monsters. And by "funny" I mean weird.

Let's consider another example: Guild Wars. In Guild Wars the only persistent environments are the cities. All explorable areas are instances that contain only the party that set out to explore them. This means that even though there are millions (I don't know what the specific number is) of people who play Guild Wars, and thousands who are online at any given time, throughout most of the time I spend playing, I only see 1-7 other players. Even then, you can fill up the empty slots in your party with henchmen, and in the newer expansions, heroes. What does all of this mean? It means that when I play Guild Wars, I play in a party of me, two friends, and a bunch of NPCs. Despite the supposed "massively multiplayer" nature of the game, my experience, as a player, is that of playing of a 3-person multiplayer game. That's not necessarily a bad thing - I prefer playing with my friends to playing with random 13-year-olds - but it's not really a "massively multiplayer" experience.

But, you object, like I just said, the cities are persistent, and there you can interact with many people at once. This is true. It has also lead to some fun multiplayer experiences, or as I like to call them, "social experiments." I one case, I decided to start running laps around Ascalon city, talking about "staying in shape" while I did it. My friend was amused and joined in, and then a random stranger joined...10 minutes later I had an entourage of 60 players, all running laps around Ascalon city behind me. Some of the people in the back of the line asked "where are we going?" Needless to say, I was pleased with the results. Nonetheless, that totaled about a half-hour of play, and clearly wasn't something the game designers really intended for me to spend my time doing. Outside of district 1 of Ascalon city, which is a 24/7 dance marathon, cities serve two purposes - to gather parties and to customize your character. The thing is, this exists in games that aren't MMOs, as well. Consider Counter-Strike, or just about any RTS game: you join a server where you can create games, customize anything you can control out of game (for example, your "deck" in Age of Empires 3), and chat with people. The only difference is that instead of usernames on the side of the screen, the players in GW have avatars in their giant server rooms.

This brings me to the crux of my post: why is there such a huge push to make games "massively" multiplayer? What happened to making games just multiplayer? The reason I ask is because it seems that most designers working on MMORPGs are under the impression that because they're making an MMO, they're greatly restricted in their options, and that they have to have feature x, y, and z. As I've tried to explain above, however, most of the multiplayer aspects of an MMO are available in games that don't count as being MMOs simply because they don't choose to present themselves as MMOs. In AoE3, you can not only team up with your friends against bots, but by doing so you gain experience and levels which carry over into your future matches and increase your range of abilities. Yet this is not an MMORPG. It's not even an MMORTS. It's just an RTS game.

I think what designers should consider for each and every virtual world they build are 1) just what the unique possibilities of MMOs really are, and 2) how non-MMO games get around the major pitfalls of MMORPGs. I don't have time to go into both these questions in detail, but I'll say something brief about the first one. I think MMOs present two elements that cannot be achieved in single player and "merely multiplayer" games: living economies and co-operative world creation.

Since you have many people sharing (and competing for) the same resources, the value of any item in the game is determined not by design-fiat, but by supply and demand. This is incredibly interesting, and some players are drawn to play MMOs specifically play with the game's economy. That said, most MMORPGs have terribly distorted economies. After the game has been going on for a while, the majority of items are worth either next to nothing or ludicrously large amounts, and even in games with professions and large marketplaces, the richest players are always the high-level players that have completed the highest-level dungeons, who then get to determine the shape of the economy with their enormous expenditures. In other words, economies in MMORPGs are actually very limited, and I'd be willing to bet that almost no MMORPG developers prioritize the economy as one of the most fundamental elements. Rather, they start with combat and quest design, and then get around to worrying about the economy later, when the core mechanics are already decided.

The other unique element that MMOs present is in an even worse position: most MMORPGs lack co-operative world creation altogether. The world that you play in a carefully crafted static world where you can have no impact on anything except your own resources. The static nature of the world is, of course, one of the aspects of MMORPGs that people complain about most often, and is often excused as simply an inescapable consequence of making the game massively multiplayer. I don't understand this excuse at all. As I just said, the potential for co-operative world creation is one of the unique things that MMOs have to offer. Think about all those hundreds of quests in Oblivion, in a world with only one hero running around inside it. Even a dedicated player is only able to explore a fraction of the world, much less the possibility space in the game for different character types, different choices at different turns, etc. If there were a couple hundred, much less a couple of thousand, players running around this world, stealing from people's homes, catching and imprisoning thieves, closing Oblivion gates, etc., you might get an emergent narrative.

The only games that take advantage of these features of MMOs are the ones with little or no gameplay, such as Second Life. Just imagine a game that has an economy and user generated spaces like Second Life, and interesting and dynamic game mechanics to back it up and make the world alive. Then go and play a massively multiplayer game, and prepare to be disappointed. What I want is either a game that's really willing to run with the "MMO" bit and explore the potential of large-scale user interactions, or else a solid RPG that's willing to settle for being "merely multiplayer", so I can play with my friends without having to deal with grind-based gameplay, simplistic quest objectives, and an in-world economy that's in worse trouble than our real world economy is.

-Silent Ellipsis