Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 29, 2014
 
My subculture is better than your subculture

The truly amazing thing about role-playing games and virtual worlds is that there are so many different ways to experience them. People might think they play the same game, but in reality they don't. You can have World of Warcraft players all with the same game on their computer, but one of them is raiding, another spends most of his time fishing, another plays the auction house to get the maximum amount of gold, and another is using WoW to hang out with his friends. The same is true for Dungeons & Dragons, which can be a base for anything from improvised theater to hack'n'slash dungeon crawling.

A surprising number of people fail to see that this is a strength of those systems.

What happens instead is that some people who prefer a certain sub-game of the larger system declare their subculture to be the "true", "real", "old school", or whatever other attribute you can use to express superiority. The message is always the same: "We are playing this right, you are playing this wrong". There is also a surprising amount of history falsification à la 1984 going on, you know, "Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.". For example people pretend that a certain play style of Dungeons & Dragons is superior and call it Old School Renaissance, but nobody agrees what OSR really is, because in reality there is no such thing as a unified "old school" way of playing D&D. I'm not saying an OSR is in any way a bad way to play D&D, but pretending that this was the way everybody played in the old days is as false as it is presumptuous. It is just another label used to express superiority of a specific subculture by pretending that "this is how Gary Gygax wanted us to play".

As mbp mentioned in a recent comment and then on his blog, Edward Castronova mentioned the splintering of MMORPGs into subcultures as part of the reason for their decline: "For a time in the last decade, there was a sense that an immersive 3D communal place was a substantial thing unto itself, and likely to become an important media offering. That has not happened. Instead, we've seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin.".

Narrower games appeal to a narrower part of the customer base. That is quite okay too, if by making the game narrower you can manage to make it cheaper to produce. But, as the developers of Wildstar discovered, if you make a game that is both broad in the list of features and narrow in its appeal, you get an expensive game with few customers, which is not a recipe for financial success. Maybe a pure raiding game without all the rest of a MMORPG attached would have been the better plan if you think that raiding is the essential part of the MMORPG experience.

I believe that if we want to see games that are huge successes in the future, these games need to be broader and not focus on any of the small subcultures in them. That is the one thing I like the most about Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, that it is a broader game that will appeal to more different groups of D&D players. (4E is better for the specific subculture of tactical players). I believe the same would be possible in the online space of role-playing games. But as that would be a rather expensive venture, I am not sure anybody will even try it. EQ Next to me appears more to be about catering to a different subculture than about bringing us a new MMORPG that everybody can enjoy.

Friday, September 26, 2014
 
Destiny of Titan

Kotaku has a post about what Titan actually was for a game. It was a SciFi MMO shooter. In fact, many of the features sounded a lot like Bungie's Destiny. And of course I know that if devs give an interview explaining the reasons for a decision, you never get to hear the full story. So I wondered in how far the decision to cancel Titan was influenced by the release of Destiny. Titan had a lot more MMO features that I would have liked to see, like professions and crafting; but at its core it would have played a lot like Destiny.

With Blizzard being famous for developing at a very slow pace, Bungie basically got there first. And while the critics didn't like Destiny all that much, the game sells well. With Activision Blizzard as a publisher and a 10-year plan of expansions to wring more money out of the customers. Releasing Titan would potentially not just have had a negative effect on World of Warcraft subscriptions, but also on Destiny continue income. So in spite of all dev talk of not feeling the fun, there might well have been other, more financial considerations behind the cancellation.

My proposal: Activision Blizzard should send part of the disbanded Titan team to help Bungie out with Destiny. Because Destiny is a good shooter, but not a good MMO. Which isn't really a surprise if you look at what kind of game Bungie made before. They could really use some help on the social part of Destiny, with better options to communicate and to join a fireteam for story missions. And Bungie is currently learning the hard way how MMO players will always go for the path of least resistance to maximum progress, even if that isn't the most fun way to play. They just nerfed the loot cave, but there are still a lot of exploitable places in the game.


Thursday, September 25, 2014
 
Does mini-golf ruin the sport of golf?

This week the blogosphere is full of posts discussing whether World of Warcraft "ruined" MMO gaming. The argument is that there was a certain style of forced grouping with strong social interaction in MMORPGs like Everquest, and WoW "ruined" that by making a solo-friendly game in which social interaction is largely optional.

What this argument overlooks is that we are talking about two very different populations of very different size here. Everquest peaked at around 400,000 players, World of Warcraft at around 13 million players. If the MMORPG genre would have stuck with the strong forced social interaction model of players being dependent on each other, the overall market size would never have passed even 1 million players. The other 12 million players entered the market *because* it was now possible to solo.

At worst you could say that World of Warcraft "diluted" MMO gaming by providing an accessible alternative. There might have been a few EQ players who hated forced grouping and switched, but honestly those players wouldn't have stayed in the genre for long anyway if there hadn't been the accessible version.

There are a lot more people occasionally playing a round of mini-golf than there are people playing golf seriously. But it would be silly to claim that mini-golf ruined the sport of golf. Mini-golf just provides a more casual and accessible alternative which somewhat resembles golf. World of Warcraft provides a more casual and accessible alternative to hardcore MMORPGs. That is all there is. It is stupid to think that in some alternative universe 13 million people would have ended up playing a MMORPG with forced grouping and strong social interaction, if only WoW hadn't existed.

 
Twitter as a breeding ground for internet hate

Unfortunately the discussion around Gamergate is refusing to die. I say unfortunately because there actually isn't a discussion; instead one side talks about harassment while the other side talks about corruption. There is no pro-harassment and anti-harassment side debating each other, there is no pro-corruption side debating an anti-corruption side. There are two groups talking about two very different and mostly unrelated things into a vacuum, and the only interactions is each side saying "your subject of discussion is irrelevant, let's talk about my subject of discussion instead".

In that context it is surprising that two people on different sides of the discussion at least found one point they agreed upon: The problem with Gamergate is Twitter. Even before Gamergate I already considered Twitter to be the worst place on the internet, a breeding ground for internet hate, the place on the internet where all the torches and pitchforks are stored for regular outbreaks of manufactured outrage.

There is a social media enterprise petitioning the US president to censor 4Chan. Not only is that stupid and not going to happen, but it also wouldn't help to make the internet a nicer or safer place. What *would* make the internet a better place would be Twitter changing its policy and demanding proof of identity for every account, with only one account allowed per verified identity. And that might be something that actually has a chance to happen, and there might even be government intervention to make it happen. Some of the things on Twitter right now are illegal under current law. It would just take one person with a good case to sue Twitter for damages because they enable cyber-bullying and internet harassment, and Twitter would be forced to change their policies pretty quickly.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014
 
Blizzard doesn't want to be a MMORPG company

You probably heard by now that Blizzard decided to cancel their next-gen MMORPG project Titan. Now a lot of people interpret that in the general mood of "MMORPGs are dead" (or at least the triple-A version of them is). While hard data are limited, the anecdotal evidence of the big MMORPG releases of this year indicated that they all failed to hold on to their players. And unless I overlooked any important announcement, there is only Everquest Next left in development as triple-A MMORPG, plus a bunch of minor players.

But what I found interesting in the announcement of the Titan cancellation was how open Blizzard discussed that they want to be company making great games, but they didn't necessarily want to be "the MMORPG company". Coming from the company that in the history of MMORPGs made the most money of that genre, that is strong stuff. But then a lot of Blizzard games in other genres were also highly successful.

I believe that Blizzard excels at making highly polished games of whatever the currently popular genre is. I believe that it is safe to say that MMORPGs aren't the "currently popular genre" any more. Which is why Blizzard is working on a MOBA instead. It is as simple as that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014
 
The paradox of progress

Once upon a time a video game ended with some sort of "Game Over - You Won!" screen at the end and rolling credits. And during the game you played the same character with the same abilities from start to finish. While pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons might still be a niche hobby, it certainly had one big effect on the video games of today: In many games you now have a character level, and the game never ends. You might hit the level cap, or finish the story, but that won't get you to the game over screen; you'll be able to continue playing, either repeating stuff or playing other game modes, and keep progressing your character forever by upgrading his gear or skills or something. And I wonder if that eternal character progress thing is really such a good idea.

In the old arcade games you progressed in the game by getting better at playing. People enjoyed that, but the progress is naturally slow. And once you learned the basic skills of video gaming, you already start any new game with a good amount of skill; while you can still progress some, the amount of progress you experience won't be enormous. Adding what is often called "role-playing elements", aka artificial character progress in the form of levels and gear improvement, gives every player more of that feeling of progressing in the game that they enjoy. Maybe you as a player don't get much better at playing, but you character now has more health, more armor, and a bigger gun/sword that hits much harder. As you continue playing, you get more and more powerful.

But there is a downside to that: The monsters or whatever you are fighting get stronger too. And if the game gives you the option to everywhere, you will find that going to most places doesn't make sense: Either the enemies there are too low for your level, or they are too high. There might be a huge open world out there, but you are effectively limited to a small slice of it which corresponds to your character level. And a bigger problem looms ahead: You can't progress that way forever. Because if every level has its level-appropriate zones, the developers can't make an infinite number of zones, so you can't have an infinite number of levels. The devs need to install a system that dramatically slows down progress, for example with a level cap where you can only continue to grow stronger by finding rare pieces of gear.

I have played through all the story missions of Destiny now. But the game is never over. I'm supposed to do various things now, like repeating those story missions at higher level, doing strike missions in a group, doing PvP, doing raids, doing patrols, doing bounties, and who knows what more; all that will gain me new gear, and Destiny even has a system which transforms your gear score into a level. So while the maximum level you can get through earning experience points is 20, I'm already level 21 because I have gear with a "light" score which doesn't do anything but increase the number floating next to my name over my head.

And because Bungie doesn't have much experience with MMORPGs, they failed to make sure that you can *only* gain that better gear by doing the content you are supposed to do. Instead level-appropriate loot drops from every enemy killed in your vicinity, even if it wasn't you who killed it. Google "Destiny loot cave" to see how easily that can be gamed: In certain areas of the game, under certain conditions, you will have an endless quick respawn of mobs. The "loot cave" is such a place, and with at least 2 players you can organize an endless stream of random loot. Sure, rare loot is rare, but if you kill a large enough number of lowly mobs in a short time, you'll get some of that rare loot too.

Those are the points where character progress becomes a curse to a game. People *will* find the quickest way to progress, even if that involves the least fun way to play the game. By adding this artificial progress dimension to the game, you end up killing much of the content that you created, because people tend to ignore the kind of content that is too far from the optimum progress speed. I really wonder whether Destiny wouldn't have been a better game without those character levels and gear progression.

Monday, September 22, 2014
 
Housing for tourists

My first proper MMORPG (not counting LPMUD and the like) was Ultima Online. I was there when they introduced open world housing. It was a disappointment, with not enough housing space available, but a lot of empty houses taking up space (camped by people who wanted that space when they house crumbled). 15 years later I read about the ArcheAge launch and think that nothing has changed. If anything, things have gotten worse: People stay less long in a MMORPG than they used to, and that is especially true of Free2Play players, which didn't exist 15 years ago.

The problem is relatively simple: If you have open world housing (as opposed to instanced housing), there is an optimal ratio of housing spots to number of players on a server. If you would know exactly how many players are on one server, and you could be sure that this number would remain constant, you could make a good open world housing system. If your servers are crowded right after release, you get players complaining about queues and lack of housing spots. If many of these players turn out to be tourists that didn't come to stay, you end up with dead cities full of abandoned houses in a few months.

Right now Trion can't open enough servers for the release rush, because that would make the problem in three months even worse than today. You can't easily expand and contract the offer of available housing spaces. How do you merge servers when both servers have houses in the open world? Even if on both servers half of the houses are empty, it won't be two halves that fit together on one new server. How do you tell the players on one server that they are losing their houses if there is already an active house on the other server they merge with?

I simply don't think there is a solution to the problems of open world housing in MMORPGs. Today's MMORPG populations are largely migrant, and you can't build a good housing system for tourists.

Sunday, September 21, 2014
 
The next video game crash

Kotaku last week had an article asking whether we are on the cusp of another video game industry crash. I think that is very much possible. It isn't just everything mentioned in that article, like people having huge libraries of unplayed Steam games. But there is also the economic side to consider. I consider Microsoft buying Minecraft for $2.5 billion to be a sign of weakness, not strength, of the industry. Not only will they never get their money back (Mojang has $290 million of *revenue* per year, not profit. The time it would take to make $2.5 billion on the profit of that means Minecraft would need to remain as popular as today for the next 20 years.). But also Microsoft is essentially saying that if they were to put $2.5 billion of money on the table anywhere else, they wouldn't be able to make a game as profitable as Minecraft. Too much money chasing too few opportunities for profit is usually a sign of an upcoming crash.

Now crash doesn't mean that video games are about to disappear. The financial industry crashed hard 6 years ago, but there are still a lot of banks and other financial institutions around. But if you look at the video game industry overall, from the big companies to the indie developers, it appears pretty clear that there are too many people working on too many (usually derivative) games. There are price wars: Steam sales, Humble Bundles, and mobile platforms on which a $5 game would be considered "expensive". And there isn't all that much potential of market growth any more, because everybody who is the least likely to play a video game already has at least a mobile phone with games on it.

Of course there will always be a few people and companies that make money. Markus Persson becoming a billionaire is likely to remain an exception, but there will be a number of people at least able to stay in business because their games sell for more than it cost to make them. If we are talking crash, we are talking about how many people in the industry and how many game companies are *not* making a profit. We are talking about the pork cycle of video games, where many companies around the same time discover that they spent too much money on developing video games that are not going to make their money back. We are talking of indie game developers deciding that they'll earn a better living flipping burgers. We are talking investors pulling out of the industry. And because of the way that capitalism works in boom and bust business cycles, we are talking about a lot of bad news of that kind happening around the same time.

The recent gamer culture wars aren't helping. Already a lot of people who work in the game industry are exploited, working more because of their love of games than for financial reasons. Disillusion those people, and you'll get a mass exodus. Game developers are usually young, creative, and have a good set of computer skills, not the kind of people who'll stay in the industry because they can't find any other job. A combination of gamers disappointed in the latest games reducing their gaming spending and game developers becoming disappointed of their customers' ungratefulness could well produce a video game crash as early as 2015.

Saturday, September 20, 2014
 
Your loss, Amazon!

I don't watch live TV. Having to be there at a specific time, and then sitting through the ads, not my cup of tea. But I do watch a lot of TV shows, either recorded with a hard drive recorder, or bought as a full season of one TV show on DVD. Usually from Amazon UK, because I prefer English with English sub-titles, that being the neutral ground between me and my wife. Obviously I would be interested in TV on demand, but here in Belgium that used to be extremely difficult: For example Amazon Instant Video is offered in three neighboring countries that have their own Amazon website, but you can't access any of them from Belgium due to rights issues. There are a few Belgian companies with streaming services, but they only have movies, and no TV shows. Not even Apple iTunes is selling TV shows in Belgium.

Yesterday that changed and the 21st century of TV finally arrived in Belgium: Netflix.be opened their doors. As you probably live in a civilized country that had Netflix for years, I don't need to tell you how great that is. Lots of TV shows and movies on offer. And a monthly flatrate that is less than half of what a single season of a single TV show costs on DVD. Which is great, because now I can try out TV shows I wasn't sure about without paying for a full season in advance.

I was especially impressed that Netflix works on so many devices. I can watch it on my TV screen either via the Apple TV box I have connected to it, or directly via the Smart TV application. My second TV is connected to a Playstation 3, and it works on that too. I could watch on my PC screen. Or I could go mobile and watch on my iPad. And in spite this being Belgium, I can get movies and TV shows in English, some even with English subtitles.

That means that an TV show I am interested in I will first check availability on Netflix. Only if Netflix doesn't have it would I consider buying the DVD from Amazon any more. Your loss, Amazon! You could have made Amazon Instant Video available here. If Netflix can do it, it obviously wasn't impossible.

Friday, September 19, 2014
 
Before and after

Watch Dogs: 77. The Sims 4: 70. Destiny: 77. These are some current average game review scores from Metacritic for some of the biggest game releases of this year. In a scoring system where a good game has a score of 90 or more (and developer's bonuses depend on having a score of 90 or more), those are rather disappointing numbers. So how about some other numbers? Watch Dogs sold 8 million copies until July. The Sims 4 sold 400,000 copies in the first week. Destiny shipped $500 million worth of copies to retailers on release and sold $325 million worth of those in the first week.

Apparently there isn't much correlation between review scores and sales numbers. Especially not for first week sales, which usually happen before anybody had time to read any reviews. People buy games in the first week based on the hype around those games. So I wanted to go and check on the same website (preferably by the same author) what a game site said about a game before and after release. It turned out that this wasn't really possible, because such sites typically only have 1 review of a game, but tons of previews. Polygon gave Destiny a horrible score of 6 out of 10, but if you search the site for articles on Destiny you find a whopping 307 of them! Most of them from before release. Not all of them positive (e.g. there is reporting of bad voice acting). But the previews in general are much more positive than the review is.

I hate previews.

There are lies, damn lies, and video game previews. A video game preview is fake journalism, it is a press release from the publisher thinly disguised as the opinion of a journalist. Either we say that before the game is finished it is impossible to judge it, in which case we don't need all of those previews. Or we say that the preview material can already give a good indication how good a game is, in which case we have to ask ourselves why we get so glowing previews for games that after release have such bad reviews.

Now some Gamergater will claim that video game journalists are corrupt, but why the heck are they only corrupt in their previews? If the industry had bought those journalists, they could well expect for their money the reviews to also be glowing. Why would a journalist lie in the preview and then write a honest review? I am puzzled by this difference in reporting of the same game before and after release.

 
Suspending player agency

The goal of Dungeons & Dragons is to create great stories by interactive story-telling. In a recent post I explained how important it was that the players felt that their destiny was in their hands, that it was their actions which determined the outcome of the story. But if you read this week's journal of my campaign, you might have noticed that player agency was clearly suspended at the end, when the whole group was without warning transformed into svirfneblin and had to flee the city. So let's talk about suspending player agency, and why it sometimes is necessary.

How many computer games have you played which started with your character being either dead or in prison? TESO actually managed to start your character being both dead *and* in prison. That sort of game start establishes a motivation for your character: You dislike the people who threw you in prison, while you like the powers that resurrected you from death. That works well at the beginning of a story, because you don't have to mess with player agency to get them into the death and/or imprisoned state. If you want to motivate your players in the middle of a campaign with either revenge or gratefulness, you first need to engineer a situation where outside forces do bad things to the players.

The problem is especially acute in episodic campaigns, where there isn't a strong loyalty of the players to somebody else. Game of Thrones tells strong stories because the characters have strong bonds to their respective houses. In a typical episodic campaign the player characters have little interaction with their family, if they have any at all. You can't just introduce a family member into the story only to use him five minutes later as a leverage, having him threatened or killed only so that the player is motivated.

Revenge can make for great stories, just think of the Count of Monte Cristo. For the player to be really motivated by that revenge, you need to do something to the player character. Which isn't all that easy if you think how D&D tends to be a series of events and encounters where the players emerge victorious pretty much all of the time. Engineering an encounter the players are bound to lose is already messing with player agency. And it tends to be protracted and chaotic. So if you want to suspend player agency and put players into a bad place from which a story of revenge, or a story of rescue and gratefulness can evolve, it is better to do so with a very short event.

In the example of my campaign there deliberately was no warning. The players had set up a guard, who saw a black cloud appear, but couldn't do anything to stop it or warn the others before everybody fell unconscious. There deliberately were no saving throws, or other rolls of the dice, or opportunities to act against the event. The transformation was quick and inevitable. And thus the suspension of player agency was short. The story moved on very quickly to how the players reacted to waking up in a room full of dark gnomes. And from there to the imminent threat of being a group of dark gnomes in a city which is already in a panic about an "Underdark threat". So after the transformation, player agency was quickly restored. The situation had changed fundamentally, but they were back in control of their actions to deal with that situation.

In summary, good stories evolve from the interaction of the players with unforeseen events and outside forces. For that it is sometimes necessary to suspend player agency while these events occur. The best is to keep that suspension short and give the reins back quickly to the players to deal with the new situation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014
 
Circumventing the quit wall in Destiny

Keen recently coined the phrase quit wall for the point in a game where "it’s a natural breaking point where [the developer] essentially gave players permission to quit their game if they couldn't climb over and reach the other side of the content.". In other words, players don't ask themselves the question whether they should quit a game when they are in the flow. If there is a break point in that flow, like a step-change in difficulty, or a big change in how the game plays, people are more likely to consider quitting.

I recently reached such a quit wall in Destiny. I did about 20 attempts to finish the last moon story mission, Chamber of Night, and failed every time. You get locked into a chamber where you have to withstand a constant barrage of waves and waves of monsters, and if you are alone a single mistake means you have to start from the beginning again. In a regular MMORPG there would be three possible solutions to that: Skip that piece of content to go elsewhere, find a group to help you with that content, or outlevel the content and come back. Skipping doesn't work because you need to finish Chamber of Night to open access to the next planet, Venus (I think). Finding a group didn't work because Destiny doesn't have decent group finding tools for story missions. If I join a strike mission (which are supposed to be harder than story missions), I get grouped with two random strangers, and up to now that always worked well (except if I get disconnected): Just by being present another player gives you the opportunity to respawn if you die, the scene only resets if ALL players are dead. But for the story missions there is no such automated group finder, and even by setting my fireteam option to public and waiting for an hour in front of the story mission dungeon I couldn't find a teammate. Story missions are solo or to play with already existing friends on your friends list. As I don't play console games very often, I didn't have any. And as there is no chat in Destiny, it is hard to meet people and make new friends.

I tried outleveling, but even at level 13 I still failed to finish Chamber of Night. So I considered quitting. But I do like playing Destiny, and I wondered what the alternatives to quitting were. If I could level up my character very quickly, and get good gear, then maybe I could finish that story mission and move on.

What I found was that because of how loot drops and death in Destiny are handled, it is in fact very easy to level very fast and get loot very fast as soon as you reach the moon. The first moon story mission, the Dark Beyond, has somewhere in the middle a scene where you find a dead guardian in front of the Temple of Crota. At that point the temple door opens, and about 30 mobs of the Hive pour out. The standard way to beat that encounter, and that is suggested by your ghost, is to move back. But you can also stand right in front of the door and kill a lot of monsters within a minute in a blaze of glory, which ends with your death. O death, where is thy sting? There isn't one in Destiny other than you being set back to the latest checkpoint. Which in this situation is the door of the temple opening and the Hive pouring out. Which means that you can stand in front of the door again and die in a blaze of glory again. And again. And again. Each time you gain xp. The loot drops (other than ammo) don't reset when you die, so after a number of waves you pick them all up. If you play the mission on hard the mobs are level 9 and drop more loot. But in Destiny the level of the loot drops depends on YOUR level, not the level of the mobs.

So after doing that for one evening, I am suddenly level 19, with a full set of nice uncommon and rare level 18ish gear. Plus I learned a lot about how the Hive mobs AI works, and there are nearly the same mobs in the Chamber of Night. I think tonight I should be able to beat that mission and move onwards from the moon. It does feel a bit like cheating, but if playing as intended only gets me to the quit wall, I'll play as not intended to circumvent that wall.

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