The Dumbening

Like out of some kind of cheap summer horror flick, it is upon us like a ravenous monster threatening all of gaming kind. No one knows where it comes from or completely understands the nature of the beast. However, the reasons it has found its way onto this plane of existence go something like this:

  1. Game developer realizes that no game is going to please everyone, so they need to target a niche.
  2. Game developer wants to make a lot of money (perhaps because they anticipate the development cost of their game will run into the millions) so they go for the biggest niche possible.
  3. The “casual gaming” niche, made up of people who don’t normally play games, is identified as being a much bigger niche than people who do.
  4. Game developer thus develops a casual game which, as any anonymous Wikipedia contributor knows, features:
    • “Extremely simple gameplay, like a puzzle game that can be played entirely using a one-button mouse or cellphone keypad.”
    • “Allowing gameplay in short bursts, during work breaks or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation.”
    • “The ability to quickly reach a final stage[6], or continuous play with no need to save the game.”
    • “2D, abstract graphics.”
    • “Some variant on a “try before you buy” business model or an advertising-based model.”

Basically speaking, they’re doing their damnedest to make the next great version of Gems because by their reasoning that’s where the money is.

Business-wise, this casual gamer model of development makes sense and (unfortunately for the core gamer) seems to produce genuine results. However, does it work because there really is a massive pile of dummies out there who are just itching to spend their money on something extremely simple, or is there more at work here?

I don’t think even casual gamers need or want “extremely simple gameplay.” Such gameplay has the inherent problem that, being extremely simple, it has little long-term appeal. Even the casual gamer should have trouble enjoying a game once they realize that there’s really nothing to it.

Instead, consider that all the casual gamer really wants is a game that is easy to play. There’s a distinction between “easy to play” and “extremely simple gameplay.” An easy to play game does not repel the user on the very interface level, while an extremely simple game is simply a shallow game.

There should be such a thing as a game that is both “deep” and “easy to play.” This would be a game with a shallow learning curve to understand the GUI (the means of interacting with the game) while having a relatively deep game mechanics (the intellectual meat of the game itself).

For a gamer designer, this is business as usual – most of the job is about constructing an accessible GUI to present a game. However, it’s a lot easier to put together to make a simple game accessible to the player than a sophisticated one. The deeper the game’s mechanic, the more ingenuity you need to present it well, and most would abandon a deep mechanic long before the GUI is mangled to the level seen only in Derrick Smart’s ambition.

That more designers are not willing to take up this challenge gives me hope to one day develop games myself. It’s very much an industry where everyone who is working in it is terrified of the thousands beating at the door to take their place. However, if so few of those thousands are actually capable of presenting an adequately advanced game, maybe I’ve got a chance after all.

The Dangers of Safe Gaming

Lately, I ran across a thread in The Escapist Magazine forums: “Most suicidal moment in gaming that actually worked.” Therein, the poster proposed that people compile a list of awesome game experiences which they did something suicidal but it actually worked.

On the surface, that sounds wicked cool. However, a little deeper than that, I realized there’s a major fault in the premise. The thing is, there’s no such thing as “suicidal but actually worked” in a game. Games offer a virtual environment for you to pretty much experiment and find all sorts of crazy things that work.

Thus, if you sit down to your gaming session wearing one of these…

… you’ve probably missed the point of computer gaming. There’s no risk to you in playing the game, so go nuts – experiment – for the love of God: have fun.

I should probably read more books on game design, because I keep bringing up Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun as it’s one of the few good books on game design I read. However, in Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun it is outlined that he believes fun comes from learning. That’s fine, but lets take that a little further:

“If gaming is learning, what do gamers learn?”

I’m not going to go all Jack Thompson on you and say they learn to jack cars or shoot people — anyone who blurts that out when caught red-handed is probably looking for an excuse. Either that or they’re completely bereft of the ability to think for themselves, in which case we should be glad that they found Grand Theft Auto before Scientology found them.

What games teach you is a bit more subtle. Human intelligence is all about finding the path of least resistance to obtain something they want. That’s exactly the appeal of fun – you’re learning how to get what you want. Game designers often underestimate the power of this, and it can lead to some genuinely unexpected lessons learned.

We probably won’t have much use for the lessons we learn in games in real life. However, how likely are we to apply the lessons we learn in games to other games? I would say that the odds are very high, and we can see evidence everywhere.

Maybe what happened the case of this forum thread was that the player played a lot of games where goofing off and screwing around just gets his personae killed. You know the type – a game in which you must quicksave constantly because a step in the wrong direction is instant death through no fault of the player.

Theoretically, he then carries this as a lesson he learned to games he plays in the future. All of sudden, screwing around becomes a very bad thing. His finger is on the quicksave key at all times as he cautiously tries to play the game as he imagine the developer, in their strange logic, must have intended. He’s not even going to try to deviate from this path, because he’s learned that all other paths lead to death.

Congratulations you lousy game designer, you traumatized the player into being too afraid to play games to the best of their ability.

A well-designed game shouldn’t teach players to be scared of playing. It should teach them to play the game in such way as to find the ideal kind of fun that best suits the design. So, in in conclusion: I’d like to see more games that reward players for taking risks.

(I’m not immune. I have to wonder how much of my discontent with games is due to the crappy lessons I learned from other games.)

Playing the Numbers: Why many RPGs fail to entertain

I was feeling in a slightly MMORPG-ish mood, so I took EverQuest 2 for another spin before my free trial ran out. I had forgotten just how beautiful the game was. Once you get over the squat appearance of the characters, everything’s beautifully textured into one hell of a fantasy land. So why is it that I can’t seem to enjoy this game?

As I flit about with my EQ2 newbling faery Fury, slowly killing hordes of level 6 Goblins with assorted DoTs, I realized the fundamental problem. It’s because – as far as games go – most RPGs are pretty weak in terms of game mechanic strength.

Lets say we’re making our own roleplaying game. We want to represent real things with statistics. We want these statistics interact with eachother in such a way as to produce some kind of enjoyable experience. We decide to implement an element of chance, and so we implement some random number generators via dice.

Now, lets make this game of ours fun. We tinker with the mechanics for hours. We create a number of opposed dice roll tests to see which of our pencil and paper protagonists overpower the other. We create fabulous tables to resolve encounters, critical hits, and loot drops. In almost no time at all, we’ve cobbled together a functional roleplaying game.

Now, it comes time to playtest the game. We gather a bunch of friends around a table and show them how to play the game. We generate characters, we start spinning a yarn about what those characters are up to and, from the time to time, we actually use the game mechanic we create.

We roll dice to see if our characters overcome monsters, traps, and other pitfalls. We ooh and ah over natural 20s obliterating unstoppable juggernauts. We laugh when a miserable roll causes a stuffy friend’s character to lop off his own foot.

A good time is had by all, and we promise to come back and do it again some time. It would seem that roleplaying games work at generating enjoyment.

In that case, why can’t I seem to enjoy EverQuest 2?

Lets adapt our new RPG to be a computer RPG. To do this, we translate all our fabulous game mechanics into the game. We design it to be a solo experience because the computer gives us the power to let players play games by themselves. We load it up with good graphics and sound effects, and set it loose upon the world.

Then we sit down to play our game, and a strange thing happens.

At first, we enjoy ourselves. It’s a real kick seeing the graphical personification of our characters out there in a virtual world, fighting graphical personifications of things trying to kill them.

After awhile, we notice that the entire goal becomes advancing our character to become more and more powerful. We tone out all the multimedia splendor and the story and focus just on killing things.

A little later, we stop caring about our characters. They’re nothing more than big batteries in which numbers accumulate, after all. We roll up alternate characters constantly trying to find the “best” one to “beat” the game.

Finally, we realize there’s no game to “beat” here. It’s all about moving numbers around with some extremely simple choices that were trivial to master.

That’s it. That’s the entire game. It sucks.

The tabletop RPG worked out fine. What the hell happened? What failed to make the translation from our fun pencil and paper game to computer form?

The short, not all inclusive answer, is this: Friends. Our lovely computer RPG is sorely lacking all the chip-munching friends that made the tabletop RPG fun in the first place. There’s no longer anyone to titter when you fail an important roll, you’re just sitting there by yourself failing to play a game, and no one cares.

The longer, more inclusive answer, is that computer games can be entertaining, but you’re sure not going to pull it off with a pack of numbers alone.

What a computer RPG needs to do is be more than just a basic RPG mechanic – which is really nothing more than statistic tracking and situational resolution. A good computer RPG needs to bring a fun game.

There’s a lot of genuinely fun game ideas out there. For example:

  • Provide the player with a wide battery of highly-influential choices that take time to master. This would appeal to those who enjoy strategy.
  • Other computer RPGs actually add a gameplay element, such as puzzles and/or twitch. While that may offend the purists, that does add the challenge that numbers and rolls alone can’t. This can appeal to a great deal of different gamers depending on what is added.
  • The last resort is simply a really good and compelling story. At that point, the player isn’t so much playing the game as they are verifying their involvement in it. (If anything, the RPG mechanic in these kinds of games is in danger of getting in the way of progressing the story.)

Too many computer RPG designers think that graphics, statistics, and random number generators alone are enough. I’m getting really tired of that. (It makes me wonder why they’re employed designing games and I’m not employed, period.)

I’ve often praised EverQuest 2, and for good reason: it’s a very technically accomplished game. Furthermore, unlike most MMORPGs, it succeeds as a good game for little awhile because it’s pretty and has a mechanic that’s deep enough to take some time to master. So the underlying focus of this Blog entry has been in figuring out why I can’t seem to enjoy this game.

Now I think I figured it out. The casual-friendliness pretty much sinks this game for the same reason our theoretical tabletop RPG couldn’t make it as a computer RPG:

  • There’s not much socialization to be found. First, the world is huge, so you don’t run across many players. Second, the casual-friendly balance lead to solo play being quite lucrative and consequently there’s little incentive to deal with other players’ bullshit. Without socialization, all that’s left to do is play the game.
  • The game mechanic is restrained in overall depth by a desire to make it easy for casual gamers to participate. As a core gamer, one who has played more than his share of MMORPGs like EverQuest 2 before, I’ve long since mastered the majority of what it had to offer. Having played quite a bit of EverQuest 2 in the past, what it had unique from other MMORPGs was largely exhausted.
  • The last line of defense, a compelling story to partake of, fails because the stories in MMORPGs are relegated mostly to the background.

If player interaction or gameplay mechanic were made worthwhile in that game, maybe I’d have a reason to resubscribe. Until then, I’ll just continue to watch them grind out expansions to the much-more-lucrative casual gaming market. Those poor, commercially successful, bastards.

Loosen up, squishypants

My latest major changes to this Blog have been to cut down on this:

Mentally, of course.

Basically, by writing about whatever I was playing lately, I fell down a slippery slope. I was writing about desperate attempts to enjoy games I was long bored of. Like boring computer games were some kind of Rubik’s Cube that unlock the fun when solved. Consequently, my entire Blog became buried under the deep porous ectoplasm of mental wankery.

After an extensive jog on the treadmill that woke up parts of my brain long covered with cobwebs, I was motivated to remove said entries. Now, my Blog looks like this:

Much of the remaining entries of this Blog depress the hell out of me. They’re boring, academic-yet-casual writing that serve mostly to whine about life’s imperfections. Probably because when I was writing them, I was a boring, academic-yet-casual, malcontent in real life.

I had details – quarter-life crisis, no social life, pc gaming sucks, yadda yadda – but I cut them because I was getting off track. What I’m saying is that things are taking a turn for the better. In fact, overall life conditions have improved enough that I’m now able to realize just how much of a sourpuss I’ve been.

I’ve decided it’s time to try to loosen up.

I was reading up Coyote’s Blog lately (the style of which I largely ripped off for this entry) and I noticed an interesting thing: He had long entries I was willing to read from start to finish.

What he was writing wasn’t funny or insightful… it was good mixture of both. It heralded both to the academic geekdom of my lifestyle and the smiling wisdom of the modern Buddhist monks I’ve cautiously exalted from afar.

Well okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that good, but that’s what I saw that I decided to aspire for. He’s got a good style, not only for a Blog, but also for a attitude in life. All this academia and abuse I have been soaking up lately has really soured my attitude and, in the end, attitude is everything. It’s time to remember how to smile again.

Graphicjam

The fat of this Blog has been rather savagely trimmed. No longer will you see entries here that serve as a sort of journal of what I’ve been playing lately. Not unless it’s a game that I think deserves special attention, in which case it gets a single entry under the “Gaming Gems” label. My Blog is down to about 1/5th of the original posts now but, from this point onward, there should be more lasting posts now that I’ve found a better focus.

I’m aware of the irony of creating a post like this because it’s specifically the kind of post I don’t want to make. However, this post is pulling double duty, as I’m using it to introduce another piece of original music I sequenced.

Music: “GraphicJam”

When I’m composing music in Ableton Live, what I’ll usually do is browse the sample library until I find a good base in which I’d like to build a song about. In this case, it was the chimes you can hear throughout the piece. This was a relatively difficult choice because those chimes are very overt and consequently would not mesh with much. However, after I found a couple compatible bass sources and that rather wicked riff (at first rather jarring I’m sure) that starts up at the 25 second point, I found such a nice sound that it brought tears to the eyes. There was one sample I used that cut off prematurely, it’s relatively well masked but it made ending the song awkwardly abrupt.

Resurrected: Two Main Aspects Of A Good MMORPG

I’ve come to believe there are two main aspects to be found in a good Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game:

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    Aspect 1: A MMORPG has to be an entertaining game.

    This is a point that is lost on many aspiring MMORPG developers to be: That a game is massively multiplayer does not give it permission to be a poor game.

    It needs to be a game, unless you’re making a MMORP. Maybe only a MMO, if you’ve no roleplay. It just sort of hangs there, unfinished. This isn’t an anagram joke because I’ve played a ton of boring, half-finished MMOs before. You need that G for Game.

    What’s more, it needs to be a good game. You’re expecting players to spend hundreds of hours playing this game. To simply implement a series of repetitive tasks and a leveling treadmill only gives the players something to do, it doesn’t assure you’ve given them a fun thing to do. No matter how many “hooks” (aspect #2 below) you have in the player, once they’ve bored of the game it’s only a matter of time until they leave it. Chances are, the hooks will only hold them there until they’ve burned out so severely that they have very nasty things to think of you and your company’s concept of crappy game design.

    As added incentive to implement good gameplay, I’ll mention that WoW nailed that G, and that’s why it’s #1. Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d say this probably gave only a base appeal which was multiplied by 1000x popularity thanks to the Blizzard brand-name. Still, without even that base appeal in the game mechanic, WoW wouldn’t have gotten any further than Star Wars Galaxies.

  • Aspect 2: A MMORPG needs to have a compelling sense of purpose to play.

    To start, let me ask you this question: Why would a player be interested in first shelling out $50 for a box of a game and then pay $15 per month to continue playing that game when there are already a ton of games for $50 (or less) available? After all, every game, at least if it’s a good game, offers fun — there needs to be more to it than that.

    The answer is because MMORPGs appeal by offering a sense of purpose beyond that of simply being a game. Think of this purpose as a reason to shell out $15/mo to continue playing this game when you could be playing something else.

    Some possible aspects include:

    • The spectacle effect.
    • Above all, remember that MMORPGs are spectacles – a lavish, public event. The more you can leverage this into your MMORPGs, the more willing people will be to hand over a monthly fee to participate.

    • You have a character to advance.
    • This appeals to Richard Bartle’s Achiever or basically any player with an imaginary power fixation. Don’t lean on this too heavily because one eventually becomes disillusioned by the grind and seeks alternate motives.

    • You wish to explore the content.
    • This appeals to Richard Bartle’s Explorer or basically any player who wants to see all the cool content included in the game. Of course, if the game is one massive cut and paste job, it won’t appeal to these players at all.

    • You wish to socialize with friends.
    • This appeals to Richard Bartle’s Socializer or basically any player who is a real people person and takes to using MMORPGs as a portal to do that. Despite the general ineffectiveness of the average MMORPG tavern, don’t scoff at this: It’s pretty much all they do on Second Life.

      The trick is weaving socialization into the game instead of expecting players to socialize around it. Star Wars Galaxies’ cantina and hospital systems were a good attempt, but they lacked subtlety in that they forced players to be there, and the result was that they completed their transaction as rapidly as possible and moved on. Something that might have worked better would be to have players actively participate in eachothers downtime wherever they are (assuming the downtime does not distract from the game’s entertainment overmuch).

    • You wish to compete with strangers.
    • This appeals to Richard Bartle’s Killer or basically any player who enjoys proving their superiority over others.

      I have to say that, out of all the factors presented here, this is the main one you’ll want to consider taking a pass on because these players are generally griefers (or close to it). People who are pushing hard for PvP MMORPGs generally want a nice platform to grief others and, I’m sorry, but that’s simply a recipe for failure: People do not enjoy being annoyed by you, and neither would you if your roles were reversed.

      Besides, there’s pleanty of games you can do this in without plunking down $15/mo in – such as your average Tribes or Counterstrike spin off – and this is why dedicated PvP MMORPGs tend to flop.

    • The game keeps getting better.
    • One of the things I really enjoy about MMORPGs is knowing that it will continue to grow and change, and this creates a compelling purpose to continue paying $15/mo.

    This is by no means an all-inclusive list of potential reasons you can invent for people to continue to subscribe to your MMORPG. For maximum appeal, you need to include as many of these factors as possible, because different people will be attracted to different purposes. Simultaneously, it should go without saying that this should be tailored to your intended audience. It’s safe to assume that most players will have a varying amount of interest in several aspects, and nobody said you can’t fish them in with multiple hooks.

    Again, out of added incentive, I’ll draw some devastating examples. MMORPGs that have completely missed including a good sense of purpose include Asheron’s Call 2, and Earth and Beyond, and Auto Assault. They were not built to properly harness the MMORPG spectacle. They didn’t quite muster enough lasting potency in the achievement/social/killer/socializing departments. They couldn’t improve rapidly enough to compensate for this. The result? All three games are no longer in service – canceled outright. The sense of purpose beyond the fun is important for a MMORPG!

So, in summary, a MMORPG both needs to be a fun game and have a compelling purpose to get the players to continue to subscribe to it. This is the power of a good MMORPG, and to simply create a virtual online world with many players within is not enough to recreate the appeal.

Self-Improvement

A lot of people like to suggest that willpower is 100% mental and you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps in the worst condition. They’re dead wrong. We’re only mortal, and our our bodies are the very means in which we act in this world. How can you act when you’re badly out of shape?

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I’m not saying that willpower is 0% mental, either. (It’s probably not even a straight ratio so much as a boolean AND operator to produce the action: Able? Yes. Willing? Yes. Go!) My point is that it’s absolutely pivotal to acknowledge that the challenge of engaging one’s mental willpower is related to their physical condition. You can be skilled at overcoming the challenge, but the one’s physical condition, the very launching pad for action, is always a major factor.

No duh? Well, this is one of my “seemingly-simple-yet-profoundly-deep-and-life-changing-in-its-details” observations. Think about this – what I’m talking about is the very foundation from which all self-improvement arises, nothing less. You cannot act with a broken-down body, and so that’s the first thing you improve. It is an observation 2000 years old and still true: a healthy body is a healthy mind. Whether or not that was what the original quote intended, it should refer specifically to willpower.

My major discovery lately has been that, instead of avoiding exercising because I feel tired, I should exercise more because I’m tired. Exercising results in my feeling less tired later. Not exercising because I’m tired just leads to a catch 22 where I get progressively more tired. Having exercised a bit lately, I recently looked down upon my Blog and said, “okay, I can see there’s work to do here.” Keep this up, and who knows what I’ll do?

So, about those Blog changes…

Currently, I have this public blog and a private blog. In terms of being a public blog, I’m not sure this one really appeals. On one level, that’s just fine – I’m not here to dance for the peanut gallery, popularity isn’t a factor. However, lately I’ve been trying to foster a capability to contribute productively, as a kind of mental self-improvement.

To these ends, this Blog could be a means in which I practice. About 90% of this entries of this Blog can be described as, “Me talking about what I’ve been playing lately.” I do that because it’s easy and interests me. However, I think that the only person who cares about that is me, so I might as well put such daily event logging on my private blog.

Instead, I’m going to challenge myself to try to use this space for some of the following:

  • Genuinely interesting observations into life and gaming. I’m no rocket scientist, but I know some of the stuff I think about is pretty far out of there.
  • Actual unusual gems of gaming I encounter. As I mentioned before, I’m no gem-seeking bounty hunter, but I will happily publicize a good game I stumble across that isn’t getting enough attention.
  • Fiction. Things I write myself for entertainment. Looking back, those weren’t as god-awful as I remembered they were, and I think they’re really good creative practice.
  • Music. Pieces I actually sequenced myself for entertainment. Again, good creative practice that produces a generally entertaining product.

Things like that. If you (the reader) have a better idea, drop me a line. I won’t write about absolutely anything, but I will write up things I think I could do well.

The thing is, I’ve got a big, lazy brain that should start pulling its weight, and am looking for insight as to how to best make that happen. That’s why exercising has been a real boon for me lately, and also why I’m heavily revamping this Blog. It’s a whole mind/body improvement routine for me, and excellent Blog posts for you.