Dealing With Change: PC Gaming’s "Demise"

Recently, I noticed that the PC Demo quantity had been drastically cut and thought that it was finally the PC gaming end times. After all, I had noticed earlier that there’s few-to-no PC games in many games stores, much like how it was before my Amiga went south. However, these are largely subjective observations, and I only decided to blog about after seeing a Tom’s Games dialogue on the matter.

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The 2007 PC gaming sales were actually very poor. For example, Call of Duty 4 sold millions of XBox 360 titles in the first week while the PC version of the same game sold a few hundred thousand total. The developers attribute this gap to piracy.

The PC hardware differs from consoles in that they have the means to replicate software included. Software crackers are very good at what they do and there’s insufficient enforcement measures to stop them. The path of least resistance dictates that most people would rather get something for free than pay for it. Certainly, piracy is a contributing factor to the gap between PC and console sales.

However, I’m not so sure piracy alone is responsible for the PC gaming slump. I think PC gamers are bored of all the clones. Not too many big-name PC games have unique and interesting concepts. It’s reached the point where a game like Portal causes us to ooh and aah in amazement and it’s actually a very simple concept. Under such conditions, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the user base has been so bored that many have moved on to the more interesting waters of consoles. This failure on an artistic level likely had far more of an impact than piracy.

There’s not much the big-name PC gaming industry can do but hope that their investors will suddenly start risking money on more innovative projects. Sure, you might not make as much money, but at least your user base doesn’t abandon your platform entirely. There’s not much chance of that happening, however, as the corporate suits have likely invested enough in consoles as to not see it worrisome if PC gaming dies.

Optimistically, I’m thinking that maybe PC gaming isn’t dying, but rather the existing corporate footprint is moving out and the indy game developers have a chance to move in. Swapping the likes of Electronic Arts for Spiderweb Software or Moonpod is a pretty good trade in terms of thought-provoking game quality. You can open up that Independant Gaming Blog link on the left and find lots of links to games that give you hope as a PC gamer again, not the least being this list of 50 really good indy games.

Simple Sophistication

Yesterday, I downloaded MAGI, a shareware PC indy game. The premise is that you’re an magic user strengthening yourself for a confrontation for the day when Death comes to claim you. The actual gameplay was quite simple: It’s a one on one fight between you and another mage, add spells to the casting cue in the right order to win. Then, after winning the battles, you might “level up” and pump 5 core attributes that improve your abilities in some way or another and occasionally earn another spell.

Magi screenshot (older version). I can tell the player has been at it for awhile because they’ve unlocked most of the spells.

The interesting thing to consider about Magi is that it’s the purest form of RPG combat mechanics, and really no less complicated than many MMORPGs out there. In ways, such as considering the wide variety if differing effects available to the user, it’s a little more complicated.

It’s disappointing, but at the same time sort of liberating. If a person is seeking to make a good computer RPG, it’s not all that hard to code the mechanics of it. From there on out, it’s all about the presentation: Magi uses some nice particle effects and musical score to good effect. The game is enjoyable, a simple game leading to a sophisticated-feeling result.

Tile based games are another kind of simplicity that can be garnished to be a more complicated thing than they are. To these ends, I think that I would like to code a good Roguelike game.

No Room For Heroes

When the alt-a-holicism reaches such a fevered pitch that I can’t even get a character to level 5 without feeling bored out of my skull, it is then that I know my City of Heroes burnout has reached fruition, and it’s time for a break. Account canceled.

I canceled because I had enough of the core game for now, but there was another problem: I had nothing to look forward to. I reached level 50 before, found it was pretty much the drill as level 1, and become discouraged. I level up a baby hero to the pantheon of Gods and what do I get? Early retirement. Was this some kind of terrible joke? Where was my heroic destiny? Where was the meaning?

“It’s a game,” you might say, “games aren’t supposed to have meaning.”
Well, good art has meaning, doesn’t it? Games and good literature really should be able to generate the same kind of meaning. Without, it’s a little wonder the participant is left feeling unsatisfied.

So, where is this artistic message in City of Heroes? I would say it’s in assuming the virtual persona. You team up with fellow superheroes while working with the local legends, defeat criminals, perform rescues, and make a genuine difference in this virtual world. This experience, that of the hero making a difference, is the message a MMORPG about being a super hero should exude.

If this is the artistic message, then City of Heroes is lacking in execution in one important way: Nothing really changes. No matter how many times you defeat the bad guys, they’ll just respawn a few minutes later. No matter how many time you rescue someone, they’ll remain in peril. At times, the streets are lined with purse snatchers, and it’s not for lack of effort on behalf of the players.

Rikti Invasion in Atlas Park.

It’s not that the developers have no dynamic content at all. For example:

  • Issue 7 introduced Recluse’s Victory. This is a Player versus Player zone with capturable pillboxes that players can fight over. The entire zone changes appearance depending on if the villains or heroes have the majority control over it.
  • City of Villains’ release introduced Mayhem Missions which would come to City of Heroes in the form of Safeguard Missions Issue 8. These were missions which took place on copies of sections in Paragon City and had actual minor terrain destruction such as cars and parking meters.
  • Issue 10 introduced Rikti invasions, where the force walls come down and a zone is bombarded by attacking Rikti dropships and troops.

Yet, as excellent as these are, none of these events really produce a lasting change on the world. Recluse’s Victory comes closest, being an actual public accessible zone that changes appearance, but Player Versus Player has never really caught on in the game with the majority of the players and so they shy away. The Hellion Arsons in Steel Canyon are perhaps the closest to the ideal that can be found anywhere.

Many players (and perhaps developers) are afraid of what I want because it’s easy to see how it could be potentially disastrous:

  • I want a series of ongoing disasters every bit as disruptive as Rikti Invasion sequences.
  • I want there to be lasting consequences for the city depending on the players’ ability to cope with this series of world-shaking events.

And so on. In other words, I want to give the game world enough life that it even has license to disrupt and inconvenience players. For many, that’s totally unacceptable. However, this is where the line is drawn: change and consequence may be inconvenient, but without, there can be no real meaning of player’s actions in a virtual world.

I would say that the true challenge is in stimulating meaning in this manner while still producing an enjoyable game to play. Many would say that bringing the two together is a totally impossible challenge and you shouldn’t even try. I disagree – I think it’s just a matter of being willing to see such a project through to true completion.

I guess time will tell what will happen to City of Heroes. The developers seem pretty on-the-ball and may indeed have some plans like this coming. However, most MMORPGs have been stuck in this rut for time immortal, convinced that there really is no compromise between a high level of dynamic content and enjoyable gameplay, and are making no sign of budging. There have been exceptions, such as EvE Online and 10Six, but none could really be classified as an intimate RPG experience. The best odds an individual has to seeing this concept to fruition is to shoulder the burden in order to realize it themselves. Dwarf Fortress, anyone?

Hack Music

I decided to start a new segment of my Blog I call “hack music”. I have purchased a copy of Ableton Live LE because it makes music creation easy enough that even a relative hack like me can put together some pieces I’m overly proud of. Besides, they’re probably more entertaining for others than most of the stuff on this page.

Music: “Along Comes Life”

The plan is to throw in a clip with future Blog entries. It’s good incentive for others to read my silly thoughts, and it’s good incentive for me to practice using Ableton Live. Perhaps one day I can graduate from “Hack” to “Rank Novice,” and then I’ll be ready for a major recording contract.

Forum Theory

Looks like I’m going to enjoy my Monday classes, which span Digital Diversity and Electronic Literature subjects. Both classes have put me in a mood to avoid homework take Grimwell’s advice and see about hosting my own forum somewhere. While I’m aware there’s a goodly chance it’ll end up a total ghost town (much like places I’ve been in the past) it should be a good learning experience.

What I’d like to do is have a relatively self-maintaining forum that operates on a ratings system. Going into this without much knowledge of what’s involved, what I’m about to write will either be lightyears ahead of most forums or decades behind. It’s basically a sort of a wiki/slashdot take to message boards.

  1. All posters will have the capacity to rate messages from 1 to 5. They are warned not to rate spam at above 1 or non-spam messages at below a 2. They are somehow rewarded for performing consistent proper ratings.
  2. Newly posted messages have a default rating of 2 and the minimum reading threshold is set to 1.2. (Thus, if 5 people rate a default rating of a message to 1, between the average 6 ratings the message, it vanishes from view. If one person rates it a 5, it’ll be much harder to defeat.)
  3. Messages which fall below the default reading threshold are deleted after a week.
  4. Threads which fall below a average message threshold of 3 (not counting non-rated messages) are deleted after a month. Messages above this threshold are never deleted.
  5. Threads which contain many posts and raise above an average message threshold of 4 (not counting non-rated messages) are auto-stickied for a week after the previous post.
  6. Users can change their message ratings later.
  7. Certain users (those thought to be gaming the system or supporting spam) may be designated by the head administrator as not being qualified to rate messages, and all their previous ratings are instantly ignored (possibly removed).
  8. The moderators can set a fixed threshold score to a thread or individual message. This overrides all user ratings. (Additional scripts may apply which catch users who would be gaming the system to have rated this message differently.)
  9. Users whose accounts either have no posts or whose average posts have a threshold below 2 will be auto-deleted in the space of a month. (This is mostly housekeeping spammers.)
  10. Only the head administrator has the ability to delete accounts or modify messages. Designated moderators can only move messages or threads to a trash forum. There is easy restoring of messages to their previous location.

The goal, of course, is to create a somewhat self-moderating forum. It’s intended to operate in conjunction with the standard email-verification and pictorial verification bot-thwarting mechanisms as well as moderators, but removes a lot of the bloat involved. In time, such a system should boil down a forum to really good posts, even auto-stickying messages of usefulness. Or it could just be a pipe dream, as viable as a true perpetual motion machine.

Another idea I had was to have a top-5 color scheme system. The users would be able to define their own message board color schemes, all the ones created in the last week are visible and available to tested by everyone. The top-5 most popular are always made available to everyone. Of course, you’d have to provide a way to abort in which case somebody sabotages the whole thing by creating a bad color scheme.

Time will tell if I actually have the motivation to see this through to the end or if it’s just a momentary object of interest I’m employing to (as usual) digitally stave off the boredom. At my current income, I could probably do nothing more than a simple PhP/SQL board (I’d have to learn both to maintain it myself and add some of the custom features outlined above) running on a cheap unlimited hosting plan.

Player Influentialness In MMORPGs

So anyway, something that hit me the other day is that the primary reason I tend to stick with City of Heroes is that you can build heroes who are truly influential in battle. When I say “truly influential” I define this as being able to change the course of combat gone wrong through your skills alone.

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Most MMORPGs turn me off specifically because they have severely limited how much influence the players have. Chances are they require so little interaction from the player that you simply can’t “try harder”: Engage auto-attack, tap hotkeys in an easy-to-figure-out optimal order, repeat until battle is over. When things get hairy, there’s simply not alternative options (other than to run – in certain balances this may turn out to doom the rest of the party).

In contrast, City of Heroes clearly provides alternative options in at least two fundamental ways.

One is the generally greater potency of the individual powers. You might think that I’m confusing “fighting more foes” with “more potency” but this simply isn’t the case. Powers that can actually hold foes and prevent them from fighting back even when attacked are common in City of Heroes where you won’t find them anywhere else. Many higher-level hero builds can decimate spawns of dozens of foes and it’s primarily through the amount of tactics these greater potency effects give and not simply a matter of bigger numbers on the design spreadsheets.

The second way is in the “Inspiration Tray”, which is filled with several temporary boosts the players can choose to activate in case of emergency. For example, using up two or three defense boosts will reduce most foes’ chances at hitting the hero to about 5% for 30 seconds, granting the player freedom to really cut loose and salvage a battle gone sour.

However, you don’t necessarily have to do something as radical as City of Heroes does to allow players the feeling they can truly influence their fates in combat. Final Fantasy XI is extremely close to the core EverQuest experience. However, two things they’ve added, “Renkai” and “Two-hour powers”, definately make FFXI stand out as a game where player influence matters more.

Mastering Renkai chart takes time and effort on behalf of players, but rewards them for a job well done.

The “Renkai” are a special system of attacks that allow players to combine their powers to gain certain advantages. They’re quite a bit harder to pull off than the Heroic Opportunities in EverQuest 2 (and, for that matter, the foes are a lot tougher) but can potentially result in massively potent attacks.

The “Two-hour abilities” are a special job-related abilities that each character can activate which have massively potent effects. For example, a Paladin has the capacity to simultaneously pull all enemy aggression and deflect all attacks for 30 seconds, possibly saving a battle gone sour. However, these potent abilities can only be activated every two hours of play.

I’m not sure why more games do not grant players this much influence, and this simple mechanic is an important deciding factor to me as to whether an MMORPG is worth playing.

Perhaps they do it because they’re worried that casual players do not want that kind of responsibility. However, supporting of casual players is really no excuse for creating a shallow game experience. I think that if you’re expecting players to invest hundreds of hours into the game, many of them won’t mind that there are certain features that could be accessed if only they were better players. In fact, I think that most would prefer to realize the freedom that brings.

More likely, the reason why player influence is often capped is just because there’s a lot of game developers out there who don’t understand that games exist to be played, and stringing along players with barriers that prevent them from playing their best likely will only get them to hate playing in the long run.