Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Minor Observation

There is a great tendency
on game forums for people of a certain disposition to pretend that there is nothing wrong with the game, at all.

I'm going to give an example. Suppose a new MMO is launching in a few months. The forums are buzzing. One of the posts goes like this:

"Hi, I can't seem to find some of these quest targets. The directions are so vague."

I would estimate a 98% chance of receiving, within four posts, a response something like this:

"Well, you need to pay attention to the map and really read the quest text and then just explore a bit. I think it's better that way and you really need to just look around and pay attention more and I'm glad they didn't dumb it down."

Now, these responses aren't the "L2P, noob" type. They are always polite, but there is the complete rejection of the initial poster's complaint. A difficulty is identified, then someone comes along and claims that everything is absolutely hunky-dory.

The real trick to identifying these people is to look for posts with similar complaints. Then look for replies from that same poster not even making an attempt to acknowledge that some people might be having trouble. Nope, not even a little. There may be fifteen posts filled with people searching vainly for quest targets, but somehow this indicates only a deficiency in those players.

It's not fanboyism (though definitely a subset of it). It mainly seems to be a Pollyanna view of the game coupled with an elitist view toward anyone unable to appreciate its brilliance - "It's not the game, it's You. Play harder."

I'm trying to think of a word for this . . . any suggestions?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lord of the Rings Online Random Reactions

I got a beta key
for LOTRO, probably in advance of the stress test this weekend.

I've made three characters thus far: a hobbit guardian, an elf lore-master, and a human hunter.

Guardians are the tanks. Haven't played this one much. The Hobbit instanced intro is so-so. Then they dump you in a Human village. I don't know why you don't start in the Shire. A strange choice, but the first tier of quests are semi-instanced (you're thrown in with the other players dealing with that tier before you head to the world proper) so this is probably done to limit the number of intro questlines (elves and dwarves get sent to the same first-tier area).

Lore-masters are the magic-using pet class. This is a low-magic world so the effects aren't super-flashy. You might raise your staff above your head and then it glows and you get a bonus. Or you reach into a pouch and toss a small handful of fire at an enemy. The first pet is a raven, which isn't very useful but looks cool.

The Hunter is a ranged fighter. Thus far my favorite Hunter ability is the set trap, which works better than the WoW equivalent. Basically you're setting a radius - if an enemy enters that radius your trap will go off and keep them rooted, allowing you to deal out ranged damage. It's much easier than trying to maneuver an enemy directly onto a trap.

The game reminds me very much of Asheron's Call 2, which isn't a bad thing.

But there are bad things in the game.

The LOD system appears to use some kind of filter that billboards trees and such and makes them look almost like a watercolor painting. It's not as pretty as it sounds, though, since the tree billboards don't match the 3-d models that swap in, creating a horrendous effect.

My next complaint is with the animation. Sadly, I don't think this is just the LOTRO team, but something to do with Turbine. They've never gotten the animation right; In DDO, in fact, the animation system was hopelessly broken. Creature idles are almost imperceptible. When they run toward you they look ridiculously sped up. The attacks are dull. The player-character animations are a little better, but humans run in an almost bow-legged manner. Jumping characters toss their arms in the air in a needlessly-exaggerated manner.

It's difficult to figure out how to control aggro or even whether you'll aggro a creature. Wolves and boars mostly seemed to stand in one place or shuffle a few feet forward. Now some will point out that creatures do this in WoW. True. I was expecting a little better by this point. At least show them foraging, or digging in the dirt, or scratching against a tree.

The interface also needs more polish. It's too small. The windows don't auto-arrange (there might be an option for this, though). It needs to be sleek, immediately comprehensible, and more responsive.

There are also typical things in the game.

Dying was handled . . . somehow. You have a certain amount of time to "retreat" from battle. Doing so places you at a circle of stones with a negative applied to your stats (this is similar to how Guild Wars handles death). I guess if you don't retreat then you need someone to rez you (I believe Captains gain this ability).

The beginning quests are the generic "bring X of Y" or "kill X of Y". Fetch quests and Cull quests, the bread and butter of MMOs. There are also the plotline quests, which are a little more involved and at a certain point trigger another instanced mission (after which sends you to the world proper).

And some good things.

The quest text is decently-scripted. It helps that the lore is at least generally familiar to most, which is probably the best thing this game has going for it.

The Title system is nice, similar to the Badges from City of Heroes. There are several other systems that I haven't yet completely explored. There are Characteristics that you earn that modify specific actions or stats (a bonus to defense, for example). You can also place other player-characters onto your family tree, which is a cool way to build up social connections.

The graphics aren't impressive but I'm using an old card. This is probably why I don't think LOTRO will compete favorably with WoW. WoW looks pretty damn good with very low system specs - angular, exaggerated, colorful, cartoony. LOTRO looks . . . okay. Not great. A bit generic. The architecture actually feels plain. Also, it's just way too dark at night - way too dark.

I have yet to try out the crafting system, which is supposed to be fairly involved.



I decided to make my Hunter a freckled, dark-skinned female.

While the robust character editor allows the application of many different hues of dark skin, I saw only one other dark-skinned character, with the lovely name "Dolemite."

Other than that it was a sea of light-skinned faces.

My immediate reaction was how very out of place I felt. This was a strange feeling.

My next reaction was to wonder exactly what the near-absence of dark-skinned characters says about those who play MMOs. Is the genre dominated by light-skinned players? Are they more likely to create a light-skinned avatar?

I noticed this also in WoW. Not so much with the monstrous races or the ones with non-human skin tones, but definitely with humans, dwarves and gnomes.

I suppose even fantastic escapism can incorporate subtle biases.


The previous musing reminded me of my worst experience attempting to play a tabletop RPG.

This was in Athens, Georgia. Somewhere around seven to eight years ago. I was just out of high school and working for the University of Georgia.

A friend of mine worked for the best gyro place ever. One of his co-workers was apparently creating his own D&D type RPG and wanted to get a few people together to test it.

Why not?

The co-worker was a bit of a strange guy, big and excessively hairy and into collecting large swords. A member of the SCA. A fairly standard RPG geek with eclectic interests. A decent fellow.

So it was me, my friend, his co-worker, and a guy I can only call Bigot.

Bigot was young, loudmouthed, and opinionated. He would become a frat boy in a few years, even if he never went to college. I hated him right away, but tried to stick it out for the good of the game.

Except we never got to play. The co-worker started explaining the game. It took awhile. The gist was that this was similar to D&D with a few extra starting races to choose from, some animal-human hybrids - an eagle race, a lizard race, a cat race.

Bigot wanted to be a cat. The co-worker said okay, cool, and said that they had black fur.

Bigot narrowed his eyes. "Why's it gotta be black?"

Co-worker: "It's just the fur. The skin can be whatever color you want."

Bigot: "I ain't gonna play something that's black."

Co-worker: "Just deal with it, it's a fucking game."

Bigot: "Well, can I make the fur a different color?"

Co-worker: "No, that's what color they are. That's how it is."

This went on for awhile, with my friend and I aghast at Bigot's mind-blowing application of bigotry. Seriously, if there were an award for Most Creative Use of Nonsensical Bigotry I think he would've won, hands-down.

Right after the argument my friend and I quickly found some way to excuse ourselves and took off as fast as we could.

This is why it's important to vet your playtesters before you assemble them together.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

For Real

This article on digital manipulation of actors in films is funny if only for this one line:

“Acting is all about honesty, but something like this makes what you see on screen a dishonest moment,” said a leading technician. “Everyone feels a bit dirty about it.”

Acting is about honesty? Since when? Acting is about faking it. Emotions, action, sex - all faked.

I can understand the anxiety of actors, but that is just a dumb statement.

Why E-books?

E-books are
one of those technologies that seem always on the cusp of taking off but never quite there.

I love books. So why not e-books?

-The Reader: A decent portable reader costs around $350. This is not an insignificant amount of money, especially for a single-use tech item. I could probably find a decent mini PC for that amount of money, or slightly more.

I'd also be very afraid that the damn thing would break. The screen could crack. Dead pixels. Even with a warranty you're going to go through a hassle getting it fixed. With a real book, I can throw it around without fear, or jam it into my backpack or toss it in the backseat. And even when a real book breaks, it's still readable.

An e-book reader is also an attractive target for thieves. If someone tries to steal my dog-eared copy of Hello, I Must Be Going, I'll give it to them. It's a great book and I could probably find another copy for two bucks.

-The Books: Still too expensive. Just at random I picked a Carl Hiaasen book to compare, Paradise Screwed. As an e-book it costs 11.96 (discounted rate). At Amazon.com I can get a paperback for 1.50 and a hardback for 8 bucks.

What's the justification? You're spending more money just to help a company save money on printing costs. And just like the online music retailers, what's the guarantee that the artists are going to benefit from this elevated profit?

Pretty much none.

Maybe in a few more years. I'd like to see a very rugged reader that comes for around a hundred dollars. I'd like to see books at 2-3 dollars. And I'd like to see a site that guarantees the majority of profits to the artists and only takes enough for operating costs.

Pretty please.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Planning for Defeat

A Gamasutra article
by Ben Schneider about placing game players into defeat situations has sparked an interesting question.

Why is it so hard to plan for gamers to fail and present them with meaningful gameplay from that point?

I'm guessing a lot of it is the branching path effect. There are simply too many variables, too many ways for a player to fail.

Thinking about WoW, you die and you are a ghost. You can run to your corpse and rez or resurrect at the graveyard with a stiff time-limited penalty to your stats. This isn't a bad way to handle it. The player is presented with a meaningful choice, there is a penalty to death whichever case you choose (some people pshaw over a corpse run, but it's still a stretch of time where you aren't earning xp or honor). But it's hardly dramatic.

Maybe on death you'd have a random chance to enter a different narrative section. Let's say you're fighting in a humanoid camp. You get killed. Instead of ghosting your screen fades to black. You wake up in an instanced cave and have to fight or sneak your way out. Dying at this point ghosts you and you can only rez outside the instance.

It would be something different, at least. Yetis could drag you deep underground try to sacrifice you to a crazed merman.

Let's start making lose conditions interesting.

Prey handled that aspect pretty well. There's no death, just a strange mesa world with floating spirits. If you arrowed the spirits they would recharge your health and spirit (naturally), giving you an advantage when you resurrected. It wasn't really fun, but better than quickloading.

One of Ben Schneider's final paragraphs is a keeper:

"What is needed is the creation of a language of game drama, in the academic sense: a set of established conventions that will allow the player to read a setback as good storytelling, and not a slip-up on their part. A grammar of subtle cues to create the distinction. In any game with a story, where the player has sufficiently broad control of their character, those controls can be used to participate in story events as well as in gameplay. You can run madly to help a friend on the battlefield, only to arrive at the moment of his death; or desperately pull your troops back the moment you recognize that it’s an ambush; or struggle vainly as magical tendrils grab at your ankles and wrists, resulting in inevitable capture. In each of these examples, the player could read the failure as a skill failure or a dramatic twist. How are they going to know the difference? The answer is a coherent, consistent grammar. The cues are ours to invent. A change in camera angle. A musical motif and a change in the lighting. Excessive motion blur. Voice over, either inside the character’s head or from a narrator. A gentle slowing down of time."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Table in the Round - MOGsball

The Round Table asks how MOGs (massively multiplayer online games) are like single-player games.

The idea being, I suppose, that highly-connected games should utilize some kind of wild and innovative new system. So why don't they?

I can see the value in asking what kind of new play structures might be created. But I also can't help but be a little cynical. What makes MOGs so different? Shouldn't they look like single-player games? In other words, don't all kinds of games look like games?

Well, either way, Corvus makes a good case. And pretty much nails why it so often feels like I'm all by myself when I'm online with thousands.

But here's my case:

WoW is a Sports game.

Or, rather, WoW play most resembles a sport. A highly-mutable sport with varying goal conditions.

Consider. There is no real win condition, no final boss, no end. Why can't you beat the game? Isn't that like asking why you can't "beat" tennis or golf? People play and play those games; They seem unconcerned with closure of the game state. But in MOGs there are often calls to "fix" their open-ended natures. In fact, it seems that this hankering for finality is a prejudice carried over from single-player games.

Consider. People who play endlessly compare their stats. "My +int bonus is twice my base int." "What's your crit rating?" They talk about the best gear. Discussing daggers versus maces may as well be wooden bats versus metal. Talent builds are swapped and compared and debated.

Consider. You can face off in one-on-one matches. Or you group up, form a team with varying strengths. Everyone has a position. Tactics are refined. Sometimes a group just gets in "the zone" and tears through mobs. Other times it seems like an instant wipe.

Grinding is like training, pushing through in order to get to a level competitive enough for a specific challenge. Right now I'm trying to make 35 so I can continue leveling my cooking and first aid.

Like many sports, the players end up setting personal goals within the framework provided by the rules and overall play structure. A ballplayer might try not to miss any games. A fencer might look to medal in all three weapons. Likewise, an Eve player might try to start a multi-billion ISK corporation. A City of Heroes player might try to organize a Hamidon raid.

Instance runs are like Championship games.

A 40-man raid is like the Super Bowl.

Other people provide motivation for your own advancement. Watching a character ride off on a mount makes me want my own mount. This is no different than a bunch of weightlifters in a gym pumping iron because they want to be as good as the next person.

WoW Battlegrounds or Dark Age of Camelot's Realm v. Realm play are just more explicit extensions of the already-existent sports structure. Sport within a sports model, you might say.

There are many more examples. Depending on your job, WoW conversation might replace the seasonal sports talk. I know it does in my office. I've had talks about outfitting and spec'ing my Priest that are just as in-depth as a training regimen for marathon runners. I've seen people argue Horde versus Alliance just as passionately as any soccer rivalry.

That's the paradigm I apply to MOGs.

If you change the way you look at the game, maybe it can shed some light on how to change the game itself.

So does the sports metaphor work for anyone else?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Not Enough, But Almost

I really wish
that Apple would make more of their software compatible with PCs.

I want this. I need this. I can't find its PC equivalent.

I seriously considered a Mac this time around. But gaming, for god's sake. I can't load dual GeForce 8800s into a Mac. Not yet, at least.

Maybe a cheap iMac for Christmas. Just something for wordbashing.

If anyone's curious, I use yWriter2 right now. It's a great program, very simple and fast. Keeps me organized. But it has serious limits. One window open for editing at a time.

I recommend it, though. It's free. I can't justify taking a chance on one of the more expensive programs. Maybe screenwriting software, since the formatting is a standard thing, but for novel writing I want lots of organization and visualization tools.

Anyone have any recommendations?

Please don't say, "Buy a Mac."

Pen and Paper Tuesdays

The first and possibly
only installment of a new series, Pen & Paper Tuesdays!

That's right, no console or PC required. Only some dice, some paper, some preparation and lots of imagination. It's hell, let me tell you.

I've only played two DnD sessions in my life and they were singularly awful. That's the sum of my experience with actual play.

Other than that I devour system books and supplements and scenarios. They're great ways to mine for ideas.

If you're interested in designing video games, read every RPG rulebook you can. Spend some time playing with the system, learning how the numbers are balanced and how different aspects interact. Board games and card games offer the same opportunities.


One of the books I purchased was Spirit of the Century from Evil Hat Productions.

This is a nice little game, one which I might actually try to play.

The theme of the game is Pulp, the whole broad swath of it from King Solomon's Mines to The Phantom. There is a specially-made backstory as well which is pretty sweet on its own and could easily support a licensed fiction series.

The system is a slightly-modified version of FUDGE (available free here).

Some people like crunchy, so if that works, cool. But I like the option to shove the system to the side when the story demands. FUDGE is really good at giving you that leeway. Rolls are for success versus either a difficulty or an opposed roll. Rolling above the target can provide bonuses based on how much higher you roll. Rolling under is a simple failure.

My favorite part of the system is the character Aspects. Each player gets 10 Aspects for their character. These can be anything. Really, anything. They just have to be descriptive enough to use them in a story. The more specific the better.

For example, you could use "Strong." But that's so general that there's no flavor. So you might change it to "Super Strength." This gives us a better idea of how strong as well as what kind of obstacles would be appropriate. I wouldn't trust a strong guy to stop a speeding train, but I'd put money on a super strong guy. But even that might not be enough. So how about "Strength of Hercules"? This provides both a clue as to magnitude as well as what you might throw at the hero. It also brings up interesting questions: How did the character get the strength of Hercules? Did they steal it? Will someone try to take it from them? Is it from an artifact or a spell?

That's the beauty of a well-chosen Aspect. It provides a means of acting heroically in scenes and at the same time suggests plot elements to the GM and players.

But that's not all. An Aspect functions as both a positive and a negative. A good GM should try to find a way of making an Aspect a hindrance or a challenge for the player.

How would something like Strength of Hercules be a weakness? Well, someone that strong might not know how to control it. Maybe the character is too rough with goons and knocks them out before the other players can extract information. Or, if you want to get more dramatic, maybe the character kills by accident like Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Or maybe the player has to perform certain tasks for the gods in order to keep the Aspect.

I like this kind of built in multi-functionality. If I recall correctly, GURPS handled the same system by introducing Advantages and Disadvantages. Twice the information to track.

There is a lot more to Spirit of the Century. The basic rules become complex through successive iterations of how the players can interact with Aspects and Skills. Players can invoke the Aspects of other players. Backstories can bring up new Aspects.

In short, there is a lot more to this system, but it's an effortless read. If you've tackled any other RPG then you should catch on fast.

I can imagine that modifying this system would be pretty easy. Buffy would fit well. So would 24. Heroes. Actually, probably anything on TV. Comics would work.

Now I have to try to carve out time to play. And find suck- . . . volunteers.