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.